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Audit: Educators do not understand how to use test results

ST. PAUL -- Many Minnesota educators do not understand how to interpret scores of state and federal mandated tests.

An Office of Legislative Auditor report released Monday, March 6, included a survey showing a lack of understanding. It also showed educators questioning the usefulness of the the best-known statewide test, Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, better known as MCA.

How test results are used varies greatly from school to school, the auditor's office reported, but a statewide survey showed nowhere near half of principals or teachers see the tests as "very useful."

One elementary school principal, who the auditor's office did not identify, said: "We test our students far too much. MCA results come in the fall, when a teacher no longer has that student. It's autopsy data and it does not really inform our instruction. The results are not specific enough to drill down."

The issue is among the most discussed in education around the Capitol, with Gov. Mark Dayton among those who often has said that students are forced to take too many standardized tests. State and federal laws require a variety of tests to be given.

The legislative auditor's report says that legislators need to pass fewer bills mandating specific tests.

Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton, Republican chairwoman of a House education committee, said she expects the audit to result in a study before the 2018 legislative session.

"This is not something we are going to act on immediately," she said.

Erickson said one of the issues that likely will delay any statewide test changes is a question about what the Trump administration will do about student tests.

Assistant Education Commissioner Kevin McHenry said the department hired one person last summer to help teachers and principals learn how to use test scores to improve education. The department would like to add a person or two to help in data interpretation, he said.

Helping educators learn about using test scores is "something we can't agree with more," he told a legislative committee.

McHenry said that the Education Department generally agrees with the auditor's findings.

The auditor and McHenry suggested that legislators be less specific when writing laws dealing with student tests.

"The more prescriptive they are, the less flexibility we have in working with districts," McHenry said.

The Education Department "should gather information from school districts and charter schools on the local costs and impacts of administering state-mandated tests, and use these data to inform policy decisions," the report said.

MCAs and other required tests take a lot of school time, said David Kirchner of the legislative auditor's office.

More than 400 schools give tests over 11 to 15 days a school year, with almost as many giving tests 16 to 20 days. Some schools give tests over five weeks, Kirchner said, although there are some days when just a few students take the tests.

"Testing takes a long time," Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said, and takes a lot of staff and other resources.

"I would gather that the problem we have is teachers are spending time testing and not teaching and students are spending time on taking tests and not learning," the senator added.

"That is a significant part of the school year," Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall said about how long it takes to test students.

MCAs and other tests are given via computer. Doing that, the audit found, means other students cannot use those computers. In some cases, other computers in the school have to be shut down because the bandwidth is needed for computers used for tests.

The report suggests that schools get a better handle on how scores are being used.

The president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union, said the audit shows standardized tests are misspent time, are mandated by pointless laws and the MCAs were not designed to improve individual student instruction.

"One thing is obvious after reading this report: The taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth from this sprawling system of state and local standardized testing," Denise Specht said. "It's past time for districts, the state and the federal government to streamline all these assessments so educators get some useful data without disrupting the whole school for a month."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.