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Report: Schools spend millions on state tests with ‘limited’ usefulness

BEMIDJI -- A state report published earlier this month found that Minnesota schools spend millions of dollars and untold hours administering state-mandated tests, but faculty and administrators have to clear a variety of logistical hurdles to do so and are often unsure how to interpret or apply testing data afterward.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor’s March 2017 report on standardized student testing claims that administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment and other federally required tests “strains the resources” of many school districts and charter schools. The report also found that school staffers “do not feel prepared to interpret” much of the testing data once it’s reported by the Minnesota Department of Education and many prefer locally adopted tests over the state ones.

Bemidji Area Schools temporarily hired some retired teachers to help administer the tests, according to survey results the auditor’s office supplied to the Pioneer. The school district and others in the Beltrami County area also reported that they purchased additional software, computers, or network infrastructure to successfully administer the assessments.

Students take the MCAs during a specific “window” each spring, and they take the tests online.

“The nice thing with that is that we do get student results pretty quickly, like within a half hour,” said Kathy Palm, Bemidji Area Schools’ curriculum director. “However, that takes up our computer labs. So, in the spring of the year, the computer labs are just used for testing and there's no time to use them for instruction.”

Schools with smaller or fewer computer labs might find themselves working to funnel lots of students through a fairly small pipeline, according to David Kirchner, a principal evaluator at the auditor’s office who managed the report.

“Generally speaking, individual students don't take so long to take the test,” Kirchner explained. “But if you look at the amount of time that schools take to administer the tests, that's actually quite long.”

Two years ago, schools across the state reported technical problems with the MCAs and prompted the department of education to suspend testing for two separate days. Palm said Pearson, a British testing company that develops and administers the state tests, performed considerably better this year and last year than it did two years ago.

But several school administrators in the Bemidji area still said they spent a few hours attending to “technical disruptions” during last year’s round of testing, and one Bemidji Area School suspended testing because of technical disruptions, according to the survey results (Palm said it was a brief power outage). Kircher added that a few schools in Minnesota reported bandwidth issues during testing because they share the same internet service provider.

The legislative auditor’s office recommends that the education department gather information on the local costs and impacts of administering the MCAs and other state-mandated tests like the ACCESS for English Language Learners and assist school districts with interpreting and using test scores.

Palm said she thinks the district does a good job using data gleaned from the required state assessments and other tests. Most district staff have a “data warehouse” system that summarizes a specific student’s test scores, attendance and disciplinary records, Palm said, and staffers on regular “data retreats” to analyze testing results, student demographic data and other metrics and use that analysis to develop the district’s annual goals.

“We're looking at all of it and we're seeing where are we falling short, where are we doing well,” Palm explained. “What is the cause if things are not working out well and what are we going to do about it?”

The tests themselves, Kirchner said, are used to measure students’ performance against state standards, evaluate teachers, and are a quasi-placement test for Minnesota State schools.

“It's a little bit like telling the agency to buy a car that can both pull a boat and gets really good gas mileage and is easy to parallel park and have lots of passengers,” Kirchner said. “It's kind of hard to find a car that does all those things. It's the same thing with a test. You put too many purposes into the test, and then you don't actually end up with a test that is as good at doing all of those things as you would like it to be.”

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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