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Students are put to the test

High school students get ready for the MCAs by practicing some math problems at Detroit Lakes High School earlier this week. Juniors will begin taking the test in April. Some seniors are re-taking the test for the second or third time this year.1 / 4
This bar chart shows how area school districts stack up on the state math test required for graduation. Concerned that otherwise college-bound students would be denied a high school degree, the Minnesota Legislature changed the rules last year so that students that fail the test three times can still graduate, though the failure is noted on their transcripts.2 / 4
Lowell Niklaus is the education director for Detroit Lakes High School.3 / 4
HOW ARE YOUR MATH SKILLS? Here's an example from the test required for high school students in order to graduate.4 / 4

The more data-driven society becomes, the more the education system relies on numbers and statistics.

But when certain test standards are inconsistent within the same state, it's difficult to rely on the results. Educators begin to question the fairness of the tests and accuracy of the data.

Area schools are getting ready for the spring testing season, which has already begun for English Language Learners this week in Detroit Lakes, and continues for others through April and May.

High school standardized tests - Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA II), also known as GRAD tests (Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma) - determine whether or not students get their diplomas.

Most students successfully pass the writing and reading but some struggle with the 11th grade math test.

"I'm somewhat critical of the test design," said Detroit Lakes High School Principal Steve Morben.

Some juniors who fail the test get good grades, they're well on their way to completing other graduation requirements and are meeting college admission guidelines.

It's the math test that holds them back.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, last year 61 percent of Detroit Lakes High School juniors passed the math test on the first try, while 57 percent passed statewide. Forty percent passed in Frazee-Vergas and 64 in Lake Park-Audubon. "We are more than making the standards for college admission, but not statewide tests," Morben said. "Are we doing good enough or are we not doing good enough?"

Last year, when lawmakers were concerned that graduation rates would decline because of the dismal math test scores, they came up with new rules.

If students don't pass on the first try, they must go through remediation, take the test a second time during their senior year and pass, or take it a third time and fail.

So why even try if a student can fail three times and still get a high school diploma?

This year, 19 students in the Detroit Lakes district - which includes the Alternative Learning Center - still have to retake the math test for the second or third time.

To have a high school transcript that says "did not pass the state-required math test" is not something they want, which is why they keep trying.

"I'm hoping that's enough of an incentive," Morben said. "I hope our students think long-term."

Standardized tests require preparation that begins in the fall and lasts through the entire academic year.

Detroit Lakes Education Director and District Assessment Coordinator Lowell Niklaus calls prepping for the MCAs "almost a full-time job."

"One of the biggest concerns that we have with a lot of teachers and administrators now is that we're spending so much time testing," he said. "And when you spend that much time testing, that's less time that you have for teaching and learning."

Additionally, when administrators and teachers get the test results, they start to focus more on the concepts being tested.

But when the same instruction is producing significantly different results, how accurate is the data?

"I'm hoping that people at the legislative level and more importantly at the department of education, are taking a look at these inconsistencies," Morben said.

Last year, 86 percent of Detroit Lakes ninth graders passed the GRAD writing test, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, while 78 percent of 10th graders passed the reading.

Some districts in the state, including Detroit Lakes, are choosing to utilize the MAP test (Measure of Academic Progress) in addition to MCAs. It provides individualized data on student performance.

Niklaus said some educators have been pushing the idea of combining the two into one statewide test.

"Part of the issue is you have to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards," he said. "And that's tough to do with a growth test."

It would be one less test to give, he added.

One more test that will be field-tested this year and released next year is the MCA-Modified.

It's intended for special education students who don't qualify for the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS) or the regular MCAs.

MTAS is given to students with severe cognitive disabilities. MCA-Modified will provide an opportunity for special education students who aren't severely disabled to be assessed properly.

"It was either MCA or MTAS and MTAS is pretty restrictive," Niklaus said. "Hopefully MCA-Modified will be more accurate of what they can and can't do."

State officials may release a new version of the MCAs in the future - MCA III - which indicates that some changes need to be made, Morben said.

"They realize they need to do something different," he said.