School District 197 Superintendent Blog
Welcome to my blog! The purpose of the blog is to provide an avenue for communication with parents and community members. I will be sharing our progress in implementing the District Strategic Framework. Periodically I will also post photos and share news of special events that I attend in our schools.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Testing: The Pendulum Begins to Shift

Dear Staff, Friends, and Families of District 197,

Testing has become a hot topic in the political arena.  This, of course, was inevitable.  Anytime things shift too far one way in education, the pendulum is bound to swing the other way, and we are seeing that happen with testing.  

In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature passed a testing bill.  Here is a summary of the changes they made.  Their bill still requires students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) in grades 3 through 11, but it limits the amount of time spent on local or district-wide/school-wide assessments to 10 hours per year for students in grades 1-6 and 11 hours for students in grades 7-12. No limits were placed on the number of hours spent on state tests.

I believe it should have been the other way around.  The legislature should have taken steps to reduce the amount of time spent on state accountability tests and left local testing decisions up to individual districts and schools.

Admittedly, if the Minnesota Legislature wanted to reduce time spent on state testing, I realize their hands are somewhat tied by the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal legislation that is currently undergoing re-authorization.  Even though NCLB is finally looking like it will be reauthorized after years of inertia, the joint bill being hammered out in Congress still requires annual state tests.  They are simply "giving states more control."  But as far as I can see, granting more autonomy to the states to do what the federal government requires does nothing to reduce testing, as is their claim.

Limiting the number of hours students test at the local level may make legislators and the public feel good, but Minnesota's limits on testing at the local level ties our hands in making decisions we think are in the best interest of our students.  I am in no way defending or promoting excessive testing.  On the contrary; everything has its limits.  However, tests are needed to assess student progress, not just on a yearly basis but sometimes frequently, as would be the case for a struggling student.  We need information that tells us how students are progressing so we can take swift and immediate action, not wait until the end of the year only to find their progress has remained stagnant.

What is needed is a balanced assessment model that recognizes that there are three things necessary to knowing how well students and schools are doing:
  1. First, we need formative measures.  Formative measures assess student and classroom progress on a frequent and regular basis so that teachers can provide a meaningful instructional response for each individual student and design what learning should occur next.  These should always be determined at the local level.  They typically are written by individuals and/or teams of teachers.  We call these curriculum-based measures.  
  2. Second, we need growth measures.  Growth measures monitor how much and how quickly students are learning.  This basically tells us if the instructional approach taken is working. Which measure to use should always be determined at the local level.  It may include a curriculum-based assessment, or it could be a standardized test, such as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which is widely used in our district.
  3. Third, we need summative measures.  These answer an important question every community should ask its schools: how are we doing?  Currently the State of Minnesota uses the MCAs in reading, math, and science to meet federal accountability requirements under NCLB.  Districts may choose to use other measures as well.  Many other tests can serve as summative measures selected by a local district.
As much as I would like to see legislators leave education to the experts, I understand how and why the accountability movement has evolved as it has.  This post by MinnCan reminds us that the movement has shed an important light on the achievement gap in our country.  I think this has been good.  The gap is unacceptable, and we must do everything we can to eliminate it.

In order to achieve this important goal, however, more trust needs to put into the hands of teachers and school leaders to determine what measures will help most in ensuring all students make annual, measurable growth. State accountability tests should be emphasized the least; frequent measures of progress and growth indicators should be given the most emphasis, not the other way around.

We can expect the legislature to focus on testing again this coming legislative season.  Let's focus on the real goal: student achievement.  Let's encourage legislators to leave testing to the experts - teachers and school leaders.  How much we test and what measures we use to assess students' progress must be driven by the needs of learners.  There is no single answer for such a complex question.  Instead of limiting the number of hours a local school district can test its students, they should be limiting the number of hours spent on state accountability tests.

While I'm on the topic, I'd also like to encourage the State of Minnesota to get out of the test-writing business.  Well developed nationally-normed tests that have stood the test of time can and should be used to fulfill state accountability requirements.  The MAP test is one good example of a test that could be used.  I also support the use of tests like the ACT, a college readiness exam. Minnesota's Comprehensive Assessments change dramatically every time standards are updated, making it impossible to track our progress over time, and they cost our state millions of dollars to develop and implement.  That is money that could be better spent on meeting students' learning needs and providing professional development to teachers and principals.

The question is not whether students should be tested.  The question is for what purpose.  Our work in schools must be guided by sound educational judgement, not politics.  Our kids are too important.


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter@Supt197

Monday, November 2, 2015

Don't Forget to Vote for District 197 School Board Candidates!

Dear Friends, Families, and Colleagues,

On Tuesday, November 3 you will have the opportunity to cast your vote for school board.  If you live in District 197, you have nine choices.  If you live outside the district, you may have a board election in your own community.  Either way, I urge you to vote!

I like the way in which the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, can help voters think about what makes a good school board candidate.  I've quoted a section of their website below:

"What qualities, skills, and experience should you look for in a school board candidate? Here are some questions to consider.

  • What are the candidate's vision and goals for high academic achievement for all students?
  • Does the candidate inspire parents and other stakeholders to have confidence in the local public schools?
  • Does the candidate understand that the school board's role is about the big picture—setting the direction for the district, and providing oversight and accountability—rather than day-to-day management?
  • Does the candidate focus on one issue or discuss a broad range of school district concerns?
  • Does the candidate's approach make it likely that he or she will be able to work effectively with the rest of the board to get things done?
  • Will the candidate enhance the mix of skills and backgrounds on the board and help represent the diversity of the community?
  • Does the candidate have the commitment to do what is right for all children, even in the face of opposition?"

This is a good list of considerations, and I couldn't agree more.  I hope you vote tomorrow, no matter what city or community you call home. Your school district - and your students - will thank you.

Most of all, be an informed voter.  Visit the website of each candidate.  In District 197, you may also view the District 197 Parent Ambassador Network's candidate forum on Town Square Television (Channel 20).   Here are some additional links that may be helpful:

Nancy Allen-Mastro, Ed.D.

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197