Across the Desk

Matt Grose
Matt Grose

by Superintendent Matt Grose

In the late afternoon of Tuesday, April 21, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Casselius had the unenviable task of informing every school district in the state that all required Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) testing was suspended until further notice. This notice came right in the middle of testing season, and for some students, came in the middle of tests that were going to be completed the following day.

There will be plenty of fingers pointed and condemnation cast. Some criticism will be levied on Pearson Education, the online testing company that replaced an American Institutes for Research system that previously had troubles in Minnesota. Pearson, who recently was dropped as a partner by the Los Angeles Unified School District for other software woes, will no doubt be attacked for their inability to deliver on their promises of uninterrupted testing, a problem they have had in the past in Minnesota. At the same time, MDE will take some heat for the $33.8 million contract it signed with Pearson and decisions made about what version of the testing environment it would approve.

Others will criticize the notion of online testing, advocating instead for a return to paper-pencil. These critics don’t understand the time and expense necessary to process paper-pencil tests and that results usually aren’t returned to districts until late summer or early fall, well after they are useful for scheduling or programmatic decision making. Results in good online testing environments are available right away, giving both the teacher and the students a sense of accomplishment.

In my opinion, the criticism is most appropriately aimed at an American society that, in its demand for “accountability”, has created an environment that is fine with sacrificing learning for a score. Testing issues like the ones experienced by Minnesota recently are natural consequences of an obsession with trying to capture thousands of individual learning experiences with a single test.

Many education reformers point to Finland as the gold standard, the latest country-du-jour for America to emulate (it used to be countries like Japan, Korea, and Singapore). Interestingly enough, Finland has no high stakes testing, but instead lets teachers measure progress at the classroom level. The result: a high degree of consistent quality in schools and some of the highest international tests scores in the world, proving that high stakes doesn’t necessarily equate to high scores. Meanwhile, authors like Yong Zhao (Catching up or Leading the Way) point out that America has continued to lead the world in successful patents and Nobel Peace prizes, two marks I agree are indicators of a system producing learners, thinkers, and contributors.

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