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Testing, transportation and technology: School district discusses legislative priorities

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Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI — Of 173 student days planned for this school year in Bemidji Area Schools, 145 involved some type of mandated testing. Local school officials are now asking legislators to reduce the number of tests required.

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“Not only is it the number of tests, but it’s also the effectiveness of the tests,” said John Pugleasa, school board member. “When certain state-mandated test are given, we don’t see results of those until quite some time later. Really, for assessment to be effective, we need to use it to be able to design changes in ... instruction.”

A decrease in mandated testing was one of four legislative priorities from Bemidji Area Schools discussed during a special school board meeting with Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

Other priorities included increased transportation funding (or an adjustment to the state formula), a reduction in mandates and adequate technology funding.

Providing a highlighted list of the Bemidji Area Schools calendar, with more than half of the days highlighted bright yellow to indicate testing days, school officials made their pitch.

“I think there are some questions about what’s the value of these tests,” said Jordan Hickman, human resources director, noting a study released this week showing that scores on the ACT and SAT — the two top U.S. college-entrance tests, which are not required but quite commonplace — are not indicative of college graduation.

“Are we over-reliant?” Hickman said. “We have come up with this cultural view that these tests tell us everything we need to know about how our schools are doing and how our kids are going to do in the future. I think we’re going in the wrong direction. I don’t think it really tells us what we need to know. I don’t think it gives us the information we think it does.”

As a potential solution, the school district proposed eliminating the required MCA testing in grades 4, 6 and 7 — yet keeping testing in grades 3, 5 and 8.

“We’ll have more time for instruction and we’ll still be able to measure our student progress,” said Jim Hess, superintendent. “We’ll still be able to look for any kind of holes in our curriculum.”

Transportation

When Saxhaug noted it can take several years of lobbying and campaigning before an effort gains traction, Bemidji officials offered a knowing smile because for years they have been asking the state to address transportation funding, which creates “winners and losers” out of school districts.

Bemidji, whose buses travel more than a million miles each year, is a definite loser, having been underfunded by nearly $450,000 in 2012 for transportation. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts earn profits of $3.5 million and $7.9 million respectively.

Saxhaug, who serves on the E-12 education finance committee, said there will be hearing on such a bill Thursday.

“We’ve got to start somewhere and the hearing is the place to start,” he said.

Officials appeared cautiously optimistic that something could be done yet this session.

“It would be great to be here at this time next year and have it be on our ‘done’ checklist,” said Carol Johnson, school board member.

Technology

Hess advocated for a system that would provide additional funding to be allocated toward technology acquisition, staff training and implementation.

“Technology should be equalizer among educational opportunities and not a divider,” he said. “Technology should level the playing field for kids from Baudette to Blackduck to Anoka-Hennepin. Everybody should be able to get great opportunities through technology.”

Mandates

Gov. Mark Dayton has talked about this session being the “unsession” as he is hoping for a reduction in excessive state mandates. Bemidji officials were happy to propose more than 10 areas that could be trimmed, led by too many required tests.

Other areas they recommended legislators to take a look at included the time-consuming reporting requirements tied in with anti-bullying legislation, and special-education laws that exceed federal requirements.

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