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An Iron Range Educator’s View: It is not our schools that are failing

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, or MCA, is a standardized test taken by Minnesota students. The test supposedly measures how skilled students are in the areas of reading, math and science. The test also supposedly shows how well teachers are teaching their students and how well each school's curriculum contributes to students' success.

Joseph LegueriThe MCA reading test is given to students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10. Because English and language arts are my areas of expertise, I will base my opinions about standardized testing only on the grade 10 reading section of the MCA.

The 2016 MCA test results showed that only 37 percent of high school sophomores were proficient readers. To me, that number is an atrocity — and it cannot be true.

I taught English to sophomores for the better part of 35 years. It was my experience that at least 75 percent of them were proficient readers. The students in my sophomore English classes had the chance to read at least four grade-level novels, 16 short stories, and 12 professionally written essays. When we worked with these types of literature, my sophomores were given a reading assignment each day. The next day they were given two questions about the assignment. They had to write an essay-like answer to one of the questions. Over the years I found that approximately 75 percent of my sophomores were skilled enough at reading to answer correctly a question based on the assignment.

A finding of 37 percent reading proficiency among 10th-graders is an insult to teachers, students, and our Minnesota schools.

To see what the 2016 MCA grade 10 reading test was like, I tried to get a copy. This proved impossible. However, I was able to download a 2016 grade 10 practice reading test. "Minnesota Department of Education" was printed boldly at at its bottom. This practice test was designed to be just like the actual MCA test so students could become familiar with the MCA format. Students were given these instructions: "Read this poem. Then answer the questions." Here are the first lines from the poem, "Uncoiling," by Pat Mora:

"With thorns, she scratches on my window, tosses her dark hair with rain, snares lightning with cholla (a cactus), hawks, butterfly, swarms in the tangles.

"She sighs clouds, head thrown back, eyes closed, roars and rivers leap, boulders retreat like crabs into themselves."

And here are the first three of the multiple-choice questions the 10th-grade students were asked to answer: "What do the events described in the poem represent? What does 'snares' mean in line three? What is the most likely reason the poet compares boulders to crabs in lines 8-9?"

If you are an adult and you know the answers, your brain has developed enough so you are capable of abstract reasoning. In other words, you can understand the meaning of the poem even though the meaning is not stated in the poem itself.

For many 16-year-olds, however, that is not possible.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who was a major figure in developmental psychology, did a systematic study of the 16-year-old's ability to use abstract reasoning. Piaget concluded that 11- to 16-year-olds are capable of abstract reasoning — but not all of them!

Professor David Witt of the University of Akron stated in his treatise, "The Brain and Cognitive Development," that 50 percent of college freshmen are not yet capable of abstract reasoning. C. Roger Killian of the Metropolitan State College in Denver wrote an article titled, "Cognitive Development of College Freshmen." He pointed out that in a study of 913 college freshmen, 56 percent had not yet reached the stage of development where they could reason abstractly.

So if the actual MCA reading test for 10th-graders contains questions that require the 16-year-old sophomore to use abstract reasoning, the test is not testing for reading proficiency; it is testing to see how many sophomores can use abstract reasoning (37 percent?).

I would really like to get a copy of the actual MCA reading test that sophomores took in 2016. Looking at the actual test either would cause me to back away from being so critical or it would allow me to level accusations at the test maker, PearsonAccess, and the test presenter, the Minnesota Department of Education, for making Minnesota's students, teachers and schools appear to be failing.

As it stands right now, in my opinion, it is not our schools that are failing.

Joseph Legueri of Gilbert is a writer, lifelong Iron Range resident, regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, and retired educator who taught English and college writing to grades 7-12 for 35 years at Biwabik and Mesabi East schools.

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