For nearly 20 years now, newspapers around the country, including ours, have dutifully reported what is, by most estimates, educational news that is almost entirely devoid of meaning. It’s been a waste of reportorial talent, ink, and paper and it’s contributed virtually nothing to improving Minnesota schools.
We, of course, are talking about the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, or MCAs. This year, once again, the Department of Education issued a press release announcing the results, and just like every year, some schools saw improvement, some saw declines, and most pretty much stayed the same. The minor variations from year-to-year are mostly just statistical noise.
That’s not to say that all standardized testing is meaningless. Educators use a variety of assessment data, like NWEA tests, midterm tests, and even the occasional pop quiz, to get feedback on how well their students are understanding their lessons. Such information is available almost immediately and can help teachers identify struggling students or adjust their educational methods to increase student comprehension.
The MCAs, by contrast, offer teachers no useful or actionable information on their students. The tests are taken in the spring and by the time the results are released in late August or early September, most students are ready to start a new school year with a different teacher, or teachers.
The tests, which were a central component of the Bush-era educational reform known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, were never designed to help teachers. They were a top-down and punitive effort at holding schools accountable for their performance and were supposed to provide parents useful information about how neighboring schools stacked up academically.
In reality, the information was not easily available to parents. And even reformers eventually recognized that the initial, punitive approach, which included defunding schools that were underperforming, was self-defeating. Here in Minnesota, the Department of Education routinely reconfigured the tests, making year-to-year comparisons almost impossible. It stopped being a useful yardstick, for anyone, a long time ago.
In other words, it never worked as advertised. But the testing regimen did have three very clear effects. It resulted in billions of dollars in profits for the corporations that generate standardized tests. It prompted schools throughout the country to alter their curricula to align with the tests. And, finally, it prompted schools to waste huge amounts of educational resources on test preparation for their students. None of these developments improved student learning, which was supposed to be the bottom line. Indeed, in the 20 years since Congress enacted NCLB, student achievement gains have proven to be non-existent.
Unfortunately, the inertia of the testing mindset established by NCLB continues despite the almost universal recognition by educators that it’s little more than an exercise in futility. In fact, the whole testing regime has become harmful because it continues to siphon away educational dollars that would be better spent improving salaries to attract higher caliber teachers and increasing the time that students spend on actual learning, rather than mindless test prep.
This is one test question to which we already know the answer. Using standardized tests as a method to rate schools has been a colossal failure. It’s time to put an end to it. Let’s put our educational dollars where they’ll actually do some good.