MCAs inadequately serve those it aims to help

According to the counseling department at Como Park Senior High School 29 of the 276 juniors at the school opted-out of the state-administered Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments math test in May. Most of these students were preparing for an AP exam, or multiple AP exams. Other high schools throughout the Twin Cities also reported students opting out of the test. Here’s one Como student’s thoughts on why he chose not to take it.

By Keith Eicher

My elementary school memories of standardized test-taking were not exactly fun, nor were they very scholarly. But they were tolerable in the sense that for a week each year I enjoyed a few hours a day to myself, contentedly waiting for the allotted time to be expire.

Keith Eicher

Keith Eicher

After I finished the test I had the opportunity to eat a snack, look out the window and try to make the Lifesavers my teachers passed out (to help us focus) make sparks in my mouth when I bit down on them—all of these being pastimes that my first-grade self, if interviewed, would most likely call enjoyable. Unfortunately, this ritual was repeated, year after year, for what now has been a decade of my academic life.

From a student’s perspective, there are a host of reasons not to take a state standardized test. (Minnesotans take the MCAs, or Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.)

First, it’s a waste of time. Not in the “I wish I was at home watching Netflix sense,” but in the “I have six AP tests to take in the span of just over a week and I sure would appreciate either a break from studying or more time to study.” Furthermore, if you’re like the vast majority of my grade, you will be taking the ACT college entrance exam literally one week following your MCA, another several-hour-long test that actually is a graduation requirement.

Oh, did I not mention that sitting through an MCA test is not a requirement to graduate from high school? That’s correct; students actually have the ability to opt out of the test. Sounds like a happy medium right? Not quite.

Schools and teachers are judged on the results of these (essentially) optional MCAs; they are trusted by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to be accurate and “standardized” metrics of any given educational institution’s ability to teach students. The MDE trusts these results to help make decisions concerning the allocation of funds to schools and, furthermore, make judgments on how effectively the educators within those schools are teaching their students.

However, in a Freakonomics-esque correlation, parents who are active enough in their child’s school career to allow them to opt out of tests have also raised children who are best at taking said tests, artificially lowering the observed school’s score when those kids do opt out.

Bearing in mind that those with less money have less educational opportunities in childhood—for low-income parents often cannot afford to send their children to as many extracurricular activities as those with higher incomes—how can Como Park Senior High’s test scores (with a free-and-reduced-lunch rate of 72.4 percent) be compared to Minnetonka’s (with a free-and-reduced lunch rate of just 6.9 percent) without taking into consideration the disparity in average educational opportunity outside of school? (Statistics were taken from each school’s respective website.)

Additionally, the fact of the matter is that some teachers’ and schools’ efficacy simply cannot be measured against others. Case in point: schools like mine, with high numbers (26.5 percent here at Como) of English Language Learner students Levels 1 and 2 (those who know either little or no English) whose ability to discern simply what a question is asking for is their primary concern.

How do the MCAs compensate for the difference in childhood education between a refugee and a native-born English speaker? Why, then, is money being spent producing these tests that do not accomplish the task of providing a reliable metric by which to measure educational efficiency?

I won’t hide the fact that exercising the ability to opt out of a nonessential test has made me feel as though I let down my school and made things worse for my teachers. I will, however, say that it has given me the opportunity to look inside a statewide problem, that, with the best intentions, inadequately serves those it aims to help. Yes, it would be convenient to possess the ability to quantify “amounts of education” that schools produce, but attempting to use that data to prove that some schools or teachers are better or deserve more funding without considering the complex circumstance surrounding each is ludicrous.

The MCAs are a remnant of a time when lawmakers were mislead into believing that quantification was the best way to judge so qualitative a system as education.

Keith Eicher is a junior at Como Park Senior High School, president of the Como Student Council and a resident of St. Anthony Park.

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