MORRIS - Over an eleven day window in October, students in first through eighth grade each spent between two and three hours in school computer labs, working on tests to measure reading, math and language usage. They'll all be in the labs two more times this year to take the tests again.
In April, students across the school will take a series of state-mandated assessment tests with implications for school funding and their own graduation.
As political rhetoric about school accountability has heated up, policy makers have begun to rely on standardized tests and other tools to assess student and school achievement, which impacts everything from graduation rates to school funding.
In a three story series, we'll look at what types of assessments and standardized tests are being implemented in the Morris Area School District, how data from different assessments is used or could be used and what current assessments say about district-wide achievement.
"[We use] all of these assessments - whether they be classroom or ones we've chosen to use as a school district or ones we're using because the state tells us we have to - to figure out what kids are good at and where they might need help," said Morris Area School District Superintendent Monson.
The district uses four primary types of assessments: classroom assessments and grades state-mandated tests, AIMS Web scores and, new for this school year, an adaptive assessment developed by a nonprofit education association.
Although the term "assessment" has almost become synonymous with standardized tests, student assessments can come in many forms.
"Assessment, most broadly, is just getting information about our students," said Michelle Page, associate professor of education at the University of Minnesota, Morris. "Anything that gives you information about what your student knows and can do is an assessment."
In the classroom, learning activities like homework, projects and "performance assessments" like reports and classroom tests and grades can all be forms of individual student assessments, Page said.
The problem, however, is that those type of assessments are difficult to compare in order to gauge trends about larger groups of students. To that end, standardized tests have become a common assessment tool.
"Standardized tests are often seen as the most expedient, the easiest [and] because they spit back numerical data, people find it easy to compare," said Page.
What assessments do we use?
The State of Minnesota mandates two different assessment tests: Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) and Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (GRADs). The MCA tests and GRAD tests assess "student status" on different subjects in different grades - math and reading (grades 3 to 8), writing (grade 9), reading (grade 10), math (grade 11) and science (grades 5, 8 and 10).
In order to graduate, students must pass the writing, reading and math tests in grades 9, 10 and 11. If students don't pass a GRAD test the first time, they are given additional opportunities to re-take the test to graduate. Students and the district typically receive results from these tests - which are taken over a testing window in April - in August.
"The trouble is by the time we get that information back, students may have graduated or are in a different grade," said Kurt Gartland, chair of the Morris Area School Board. "Teachers can see where a student has been, but it really doesn't help their teaching style much because the data is six months old."
Several years ago, the district implemented AIMS Web, a literacy test, to help gather more data on students. AIMS Web scores focus on testing student literacy. To take an AIMS Web test, a student sits down with a screener and reads a passage. The screener marks down any time a student makes a mistake reading the passage, then moves on to another passage. The test is designed to "drill down to the finer points of literacy," said Monson.
"We implemented [AIMS] based on the need for more data on kids. Primarily, it boiled down to we just wanted better data on students when it comes to reading," said Monson.
Measures of Academic Progress
The desire for more data led the district to implement a new assessment for this school year - Measures of Academic Progress (MAPs), which were developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), for students in grades 1 through 8.
NWEA is a Seattle-based nonprofit founded in 1974 that specializes in adaptive assessments for school districts. NWEA has worked with districts in all 50 states and more than 3,400 school districts, including 410 districts in Minnesota.
Unlike the MCAs and GRAD tests, which provide a standard set of questions to all students, the MAP is an online, adaptive test that specializes to each student.
"The adaptive aspect of the test means that the difficulty level of the questions adjust according to how each student answer the previous question," said Monson. "In its simplest form, if a student gets a question wrong, the next one will be easier ... if they get that one correct, the next questions will be more difficult. This adjusting continues until the program is able to zero in on each student's specific skill level."
Because the tests are taken online, feedback on student scores is more immediate - within 48 hours of sending the tests to NWEA, the district will have a detailed breakdown of student scores in specific skills and skill sets.
For example, reading scores are broken down into three strands - comprehension, vocabulary and literacy - which, ideally, will allow teachers and administrators to focus in on what skills individual and groups of students need to work on, Monson explained.
Students will take the MAP tests in reading, math and language usage three times this year. The district finished the first round of testing in October, then will repeat the tests in January and May. Each test takes between 40 and 50 minutes.
"One of the reasons we want to do that is because we want to see what type of growth our students make," said Monson.
Although taking these tests takes time, Monson said he believes the time will be worth the results.
"I think that's one of the challenges. We're taking kids out of the classroom to assess them. But I think in the long run, the result and the information and the data we get from the assessments and the way we use that is going to be a good investment," said Monson.
In our next story, set to run in our Dec. 3 edition, we'll look at how all of the data about students is currently used and how it might be used in the future.