The Minnesota teachers union is aiming to influence the debate over the tests students must take as Congress moves to finish a long overdue rewrite of a federal school accountability law.
Education Minnesota was set to release a policy paper Monday at the Minnesota State Fair that renews the union's call for better but fewer assessments given to public school students. It's a change the union has long advocated for and one that has many fans and detractors.
The union's "Testing Better" policy report says less-frequent "grade span" tests would provide plenty of data to hold schools accountable. Regular classroom assessments should be focused on measuring students' higher-level skills and inform teachers' instruction, the report says.
Teachers administer a variety of tests each year. State and federal law requires students from elementary school to high school take Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, in math and reading and science each spring.
Results of those exams are used to rate schools and identify those that are succeeding and struggling. This year's MCA scores were stagnant.
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said public education has become too focused on high-stakes tests that eat up classroom time and distract teachers and students from focusing on deeper academic skills.
"The toxic testing approach is really narrowing curriculum," Specht said. "Let's talk about better assessments that look at higher-level skills.
We need to be working on more than just filling in bubbles."
Specht added that student artwork and robotics projects on display at the State Fair Education Building are perfect examples of important curriculum that often gets overlooked. "There is learning displayed at the Fair that is never measured by standardized tests," she said.
Supporters of annual proficiency testing argue that without regular measures of student academic achievement, Minnesota would not know the extent of its persistent achievement gap between poor and minority students and their classmates.
"The MCAs are the best evaluation of how kids are doing relative to our standards," said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. "People want more quality information about how their kids are doing, not less."
The debate over the place of standardized testing will surely heat up this fall as Congress begins work to finalize a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law. The legislation, signed by George W. Bush in 2002, ushered in an era of annual proficiency tests for school accountability.
Educators found a requirement of the law that every student reach grade-level proficiency by 2014 unrealistic, and Congress has been unable to update the legislation for years. The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed different versions of a rewrite this summer, and they head to conference committee with widespread hope of a deal.
The Minnesota Legislature just had a heated debate over testing during the last legislative session. Gov. Mark Dayton has long been a critic of what he says are excessive standardized tests and pushed for a reduction similar to what union leaders want.
The idea was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education and Minnesota Republicans. Instead, lawmakers reached a bipartisan deal to incrementally reduce the exams the state requires while continuing annual MCAs.
Specht says now is the time for the next step. Educators need to speak up and encourage state and federal lawmakers to fix what she says is an obsession with standardized tests.
The teachers union created the Educator Policy Innovation Center to give classroom teachers more of a say in policy decisions, she said.
"We've seen too many policy debates are being shaped by people who don't work in schools," Specht said.
Liz Proepper, a teacher at Bay View Elementary in the Proctor school district, helped write the "Testing Better" report. She said educators have much better assessment tools at their fingertips than the MCAs.
"They show us things the MCAs are just blind to," Proepper said.
She added that schools now spend so much time time focusing on academic skills that can be easily measured that they spend less time on other important skills like collaboration and creative problem solving.
MCA supporters downplay the rigidity of annual proficiency tests. They say the consistency they offer is a good thing because it gives historic, longitudinal data about student achievement.
"Consistency is something we have struggled with," said Al Fan, executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a nonprofit working to improve education in the region. "That is what we need in education, so we can make plans, set goals and measure progress."