Testing keeps school district, students busy all year

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 22, 2002

Taking tests has long been a big part of going to school – along with classrooms, chalkboards and worksheets – but the type of testing has not always been the same.

Friday, March 22, 2002

Taking tests has long been a big part of going to school – along with classrooms, chalkboards and worksheets – but the type of testing has not always been the same.

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Once upon a time, the tests were just for students. But things change, and testing has taken on a more prominent role in schools over the past few years. Now even teachers and schools are &uot;graded&uot; on the basis of how well the students they teach fill in the blanks on their answer sheets.

Because of all of that, school districts take testing very seriously, and in the Albert Lea school district, it is practically a year round activity.

&uot;I don’t think there is a single month in the year in which I am not packing or unpacking tests, administering tests – I don’t think there is a month I’m not working on testing,&uot; said Judy Knudtson, district curriculum director.

Testing in district 241 is used for a wide range of purposes, some of which are mandated by outsiders and some of which are the district’s own idea.

&uot;Testing is one way to see some things about student academic progress,&uot; Knudtson said. But she puts special stress on the words &uot;one&uot; and &uot;some&uot; when she says that, because she doesn’t believe that testing is the only way for students to show what they know.

There are three different series of tests which involve all the students in the district: the Basic Skills Test (BST), the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA), and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).

They must pass

Of greatest relevance to most students are the Basic Skills Tests, which are required by the state of Minnesota. The BST assesses a student’s minimum competency in reading, writing and mathematics.

The BST is the only test that has a direct impact on a student’s educational future. Knudtson refers to the basic tests as &uot;diploma-withholding exams&uot; because if students don’t pass, they don’t graduate.

These tests begin with math and reading in the eighth grade, and this year will also include a writing test in 10th grade.

&uot;Everyone involved wants to pass these tests in the eighth grade,&uot; said Knudtson. The goal in the district is for 80 percent of the students taking the test to pass, but their success has been uneven. The first time the tests were administered, in 1996, the district was surprised and dismayed that the pass rate was lower than expected. Albert Lea’s scores are still often below the state average, but she feels they are slowly bringing scores up.

Unlike many other tests, which need to be completed within a specific time limit, students can continue to work on their basic skills tests for as long as they need to, so long as they are visibly making progress.

If they fail on their first attempt, students have opportunities every year after that to retake the test. Many opt to do so during a special three-day summer testing session, which also involves optional enrichment sessions for students who are in need of help in catching up. The last opportunity is a test session in May set aside only for students in 12th grade.

Knudtson compares the BST to a matriculation exam older residents of the county would have had to take at the end of eighth grade, in order to be able to attend high school.

Other tests

The MCA is another state-mandated test, but it actually provides a measure of a whole school’s progress. This test measures the skills of students against a standard set by the highest performing students in the state of Minnesota.

Students take the MCA throughout their years in school, starting in elementary (third and fifth grade), continuing in high school (writing and reading tests in 10th grade, a math test in 11th grade). At some point in the future there will also be a set of seventh grade MCA exams, which are currently still under development.

After taking the MCA, schools get a report of how the school did overall, as well as reports on each student. Parents get reports on how their children do.

The ITBS is the third series of tests, and it is an &uot;optional&uot; test, because the district is not required to administer it. The ITBS is used by the district to provide a big picture of student progress compared to national averages, said Knudtson. It also helps the district to assess individual student development, she added.

The atmosphere

Making sure that the testing environment is the best possible one for students has become one of Knudtson’s responsibilities. She will even work with food service staff to make sure that meals served in the district on testing days are the least likely to cause any problems, gastrointestinal or any other kinds.

Principals at each of the buildings as well as counselors also help with testing duties.

One constant with standardized tests is security. As testing coordinator, Knudtson has to comply with the rules about safeguarding the testing materials. This can mean working until late at night during a week when tests are being distributed, or counting the test booklets and answer sheets, so that the every single item is accounted for.

&uot;It can be a bookkeeping and detail nightmare, but then there really isn’t any way to get around it,&uot; she said.

Something else that is a constant with testing is change. With the Bush education plan now the law of the land, testing will have an even greater impact on schools, but the exact impact of the new education agenda coming from Washington isn’t clear yet, said Knudtson, and it may take a year or two for everything to be worked out in any detail.

Meanwhile she gets materials ready for the next round of testing and waits for the next batch of reports to come back.

&uot;This isn’t supposed to be the primary emphasis of my job, and I try not to let it become that, but it’s hard,&uot; Knudtson said.