If Minnesota gets its way, school kids this spring will take standardized math and reading tests, like normal, but the results won’t be used to flag or penalize schools that are struggling or underachieving.
This doesn’t mean the return of statewide testing — it was canceled last year in Minnesota due to COVID-19 — won’t be of great value. The testing can play a huge role in gauging how students are doing and where they’re at after a challenging year of distance learning, district-by-district mixes of in-person and virtual classes, limited days of instruction, and more, all as a result of the pandemic.
Are we really facing a lost generation of learners, as some fear? As clear a picture as possible of our shared future can be critical in adjusting, if necessary classroom instruction — without unfairly penalizing schools and school districts for doing the best they could under unprecedented and monumentally difficult circumstances and without holding them accountable in the ways standardized tests typically do.
"As children return to school, we can clearly see gaps in their education that are the product of the hardship of this last year," Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, pointed out in an op-ed last month. "As we look to get our students back on track, these shortfalls must be addressed.”
In line with that goal, last week, the Minnesota Department of Education requested a one-time waiver from accountability and school-identification requirements in federal education law, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in a story published by the News Tribune. If approved, the state won’t use this year’s test results in identifying low-performing schools. This year’s list of schools in need of extra support from the state would instead just carry over to next year.
EdAllies, a nonprofit that advocates for historically underserved students, agrees the testing — known as Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs — can be “an essential tool for understanding whether students are on track,” as its executive director said in the news story. The testing this spring can serve as a baseline for tracking Minnesota’s academic recovery from the pandemic, he said. And it can give parents data on their children’s needs.
Legislation in St. Paul this session has similar goals. Lawmakers are considering suspending until 2023 any new state-mandated academic standards. A priority on recovery and a return to something resembling normal could be complicated by such new standards when reforms can wait and when our educational system needs to reestablish itself more immediately and get back on a firm foundation. They’re also looking to give Minnesota school districts some welcome flexibility in addressing unexpected COVID-caused budget strains by allowing them, this school year only, to redirect reserved or restricted funds to other purposes.
Another bill proposed at the Minnesota Legislature would address a statewide shortage, especially in rural Minnesota, of substitute teachers by widening applicant pools. Adequate numbers of qualified subs could help ensure in-person instruction and can be accomplished without easing the state’s stringent qualification requirements. High-quality teaching, including in substitute situations, must be maintained, even in a pandemic.
Have children regressed here in Minnesota? It's an important question, with our very future at stake. It’s good we’re finding out, especially if the data collected for the endeavor, including through standardized testing, isn’t used to penalize schools or school districts but rather to help them regain their traction.