More than 250 students in grades 3-12 at Detroit Lakes Public Schools opted out of taking the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading, math and science last April — and the school district's education director says that this is a major reason why the results that were released by the Minnesota Department of Education in late August shouldn't be taken as a definitive statement of either student or teacher performance.
"We won't be using them in the way we usually would," said Renee Kerzman, Detroit Lakes' director of curriculum, instruction and technology, in a Wednesday interview. In fact, she added, MDE even sent out a cautionary warning about using the data for comparative purposes this year.
Besides the significant drop in student participation, Kerzman said, there are other reasons why the tests are less useful than normal as a measurement tool.
"Educators and students experienced significant and profound changes in teaching and learning, as well as social and emotional well-being," she said in a report to the Detroit Lakes School Board at its Sept. 20 meeting.
All district staff and students had to adjust to multiple "pivots" between in-person, fully remote, and hybrid learning models during the 2020-21 school year, Kerzman explained during Wednesday's interview.
"We tried to do whatever we could to have our students with their teachers, in person, whenever possible," she said, which led to more frequent learning model changes rather than extended periods of distance learning.
Though district staff went out of their way to ensure that every student had access to the technology necessary for remote learning, their at-home learning environment often differed greatly.
"There was no way to measure (or regulate) that," Kerzman said.
Another factor to consider is that there were no MCAs administered in 2020, which means the last available comparative data is from 2019 — prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
In addition, Kerzman said, the actual classroom time spent on testing was condensed, rather than spread out over a period of several days as it had been in the past.
"Our teachers had such limited instructional time," Kerzman said, that they told district administration, "When we have the kids here (in school), we want to be working with them rather than having them sit there and take tests."
That compressed test-taking period also likely had an impact on the results, she added.
Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment testing is based on the state's K-12 academic standards for math, reading and science.
Among all Detroit Lakes students, the 2021 MCA results show the number of those who tested as proficient — i.e., meeting or exceeding expectations — in math, reading and science was at 44.1%, 49.5%, and 42.4%, respectively. The 2019 rates were 55.4%, 61.1% and 68.8%.
The drop was most noticeable among middle school (grades 6-8) students, whose 2021 proficiency levels in math, reading and science were 28.8%, 41.8%, and 24.2%, respectively, as compared to 45.8%, 58.8%, and 58.3% in 2019. However, Kerzman noted, the number of students opting out of testing was particularly high at the middle school level, which undoubtedly skewed the results, though there is no way of determining whether the numbers would have been better or worse with a higher participation rate.
"When a lot of your students are missing (from the data), it's difficult to draw conclusions," she said. "We can't really rely on this testing event to tell our data story."
Some drop in proficiency was to be expected, Kerzman added, as statewide data also shows a significant decrease. She said that individual student results are being sent directly to parents this fall, with many teachers choosing to make them available at parent-teacher conferences, so they can discuss them in person. Complete results for all school districts across Minnesota can be found online, in the Minnesota Report Card section of the MDE Data Center at education.mn.gov.
'Newfound excitement' for in-person learning
Kerzman said the atmosphere across all of Detroit Lakes' academic facilities this fall has been overwhelmingly positive, as both students and staff are happy to be back together for fully in-person learning (no distance learning options are being offered other than the E-Laker Online High School program this year).
"There's some newfound excitement," Kerzman said. "We're looking forward to a really good year."