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Senate debates MCA testing, standards

Minnesota Senate passes bill instructing Dept. of Education to carry out MCA tests this spring, and votes to freeze academic standards for two years.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Senate Monday passed a bill instructing the Minnesota Department of Education to move ahead with standardized tests this spring.

The MDE has already given school districts a window between March 8 and May 21 to complete those tests, including the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs. But Senate Republicans said they wanted to put something in law that would bar the department from granting waivers or exemptions to any schools or districts.

"Parents and families are asking for the MCAs to be done and thank God the federal government's requiring it and it's going to be done," Sen. Roger Chamberlain, the Lino Lakes Republican who authored the bill, told colleagues.

"Are they perfect? Do we love them? No, but thank God they're being done because we need to know."

As in previous years, parents have the ability to opt their children out of the exams, and the form to do that can be found on the MDE web page explaining the purpose of the MCA tests. They not only gauge student achievement in any given year, but also supposed to serve as one indicator of whether individual schools are performing better when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

Some teachers have told the media and lawmakers that they don't want to rush into testing mode, especially with many middle school and high school students just now returning to in-person learning after distancing learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Sen. Chamberlain said the MCAs are more important than ever, because it will help parents know how far behind schools have fallen in their duty to educate children during the pandemic. But the pitfalls and trauma of distance learning are also the reason some parents want children to skip MCAs this year.

"You're going to have a record number of opt-outs," Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Maplewood Democrat told his colleagues during the floor debate.

"You can opt out because you object to testing at this level, and also because of the pandemic." 

The main objection Democrats had to Chamberlain's bill was a requirement that the Dept. of Education facilitate children taking the MCA tests from home. Chamberlain agreed to drop that part of the bill after Sen. Mary Kunesh of New Brighton explained complications that could arise from doing those exams without normal level of staff supervision.

Sen. Kunesh for the past dozen years has been in charge of administering the MCA tests in the Robbinsdale School District. She said even if you could get past the technology barriers and the web security issues, the exam rooms are supposed to be stripped of any posters or graphics that could aid students.  

"You can't have anything up on the walls that would give any student an unfair advantage. How are you going to ensure that is not going to happen at home?" Kunesh remarked.

She said calculators are allowed, but it's the built-in calculator not the handheld ones high school students use. It would be impossible to monitor that if students are at home.

And students aren't allowed to ask the test monitors any questions during the exam.

"As a teacher, you can't read a word to a student. You can't tell a student what that word means. You can't tell them anything other than, 'Do your best. Remember what your teacher taught you'," Kunesh explained.

"How many parents are going to do that? How many grandparents are going to do that? It's going to break their hearts to do that. It's the hardest thing in the world."

The MCA reading and math tests are given annually from the third grade through high school, and the MCA science tests are given in fifth grade, eighth grade and through high school. Schools are rated based on how each grade level performed one year versus the previous year, rather than by how individual students progress from year-to-year.

Social Studies Curriculum

The Senate also passed Chamberlain's bill that would freeze any changes to academic standards for two years. He said schools have enough to deal with now helping students catch up on the learning they lost during the pandemic, and teachers shouldn't have to deal with implementing curriculum changes.

RELATED: University of St. Thomas approves new 'test optional' policy for incoming students

DFL senators perceived it as an attempt to block the ongoing efforts by the Dept. of Education to adopt a new social studies curriculum for the first time in almost a decade. The updated social studies standards are being drafted by a statewide committee of 38 Minnesotans.

"The reason we were just given for this bill makes absolutely no sense!" Sen. Melisa Franzen, and Edina Democrat, argued.

"If your argument is that we're going to be further delayed, what you're doing is further delaying the instruction they're going to be receiving – the instruction and up-to-day information we need them to learn in history, science, mathematics." 

Sen. Wiger read a letter from a member of the Minnesota Social Studies Standards Committee, pointing to the need for curriculum to reflect the changing demographics of Minnesota's population.

Sen. Chamberlain said his bill has nothing to do with the content of the new curriculum, only the work load it could impose.

"Members, it's a simple bill. It shouldn't be complicated," he said.

Sen. Steve Cwodzinski of Eden Prairie, a retired social studies teacher, rejected the idea that implementing a new curriculum is a burden to teachers.

"This isn't giving schools more breathing room! It's adding two more years to something the social studies teachers have already waited ten years for!" Sen. Cwodzinski remarked.

He said in his 33 years of teaching social studies teacher embraced the opportunity to adopt the new benchmarks and purchase the materials and software they needed to make it happen.

"It was like all the holidays together in one!" he said, "It was a wonderful, wonderful time period!"

Social studies curriculum changes have often become controversial in the past, sparking debate over which historical events to include and which perspectives to use.  There often are conflicts over how to describe sexuality and sexual orientation in science curriculum.

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