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NCLB Outrages

Here's How NCLB Drives the High Stakes in State Tests

High school reading and math tests may someday play a key role in education -- and become a deciding factor in whether the state meets federal education standards. But to 10th-graders who were supposed to take a state reading test Tuesday at St. Paul Central, it had all the allure of a John Tesh concert.

So they skipped it.

Half of the students who were to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) reading test didn't show up, said St. Paul Central Principal Mary Mackbee. Or they showed up, then left.

"I'm out there, trying to herd them into school as they're leaving," Mackbee said. "Or they're getting off the bus and they're going to Tracy 1 Stop [a nearby store] and getting a hot dog."

Mackbee expects similar problems from 11th-graders who have to take the state math test today. "They just won't do it. It's not required for graduation and they're smart enough to know that," she said.

State officials acknowledge that high school principals across Minnesota are concerned. While the MCA tests are expected to become part of the state's compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, they are not required of high school students for graduation.

That has made for spotty attendance on testing days this year and last year, the first time the tests were given to high school students. Last year, more than half of the 11th-graders at Minneapolis Southwest High School skipped the math test -- although most took it the next day.

Bill Walsh, spokesman for the state Department of Children, Families and Learning, said that it won't much matter if students don't show up this year. But next year, at least 95 percent of students will have to take the test or a school could be identified as low-performing, he said.

"It's going to be very important next year," Walsh said of state plans waiting for federal approval. "Eventually, it's got to be required for high school graduation."

Not all no-shows
Not all students are shirking the tests. At high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin district, attendance for the tests was well over 90 percent Tuesday, an official said. In Minneapolis, attendance ranged from 75 percent at North High to more than 90 percent at Southwest.

Southwest Principal Dawn Allan said officials did nothing special this year to keep last year's mass absence from recurring. Instead, she said, "last year was the anomaly."

"The test had not been in place long enough to have a history for kids, and they weren't sure how the results would be used," Allan said of last year. "And then a staff told them it would have no impact on college or whatever, so they organized and skipped."

Attendance at most St. Paul high schools was solid Tuesday, officials said. Mackbee, tongue-in-cheek, said that perhaps her school's students "are more enlightened" about the lack of consequences than those at other schools.

Tests in the spotlight
But seriously, Mackbee said, the school board or the state should require the test for graduation. "They need to make it a high-stakes test," she said. "Otherwise it will continue to be a battle to convince kids and parents."

St. Paul officials said they now include the MCA test scores on high school transcripts -- as well as whether a student missed the test. Anoka-Hennepin does the same thing.

Margo Baines, the St. Paul schools' chief accountability officer, said she expects that the district would support a state move to require the test for graduation "if it's going to be the high-stakes test we're looking for," meaning that it actually tracks student progress.

But Anne Carroll, a St. Paul school board member, said that rather than tying the tests to graduation, perhaps teachers and principals should do a better job of making the tests relevant to students and educators.

In the meantime, principals such as Mackbee will do what they can to get kids to show up. "Last year, I told them they couldn't go to the prom, but that didn't intimidate them," said the Central principal. This year, she gave them a very simple message:

"They're making it up," she said. "We're pulling them out of their classes. They either do it today or we're taking them out of their classes this week."

— James Walsh
Big test? St. Paul Central students skip it in droves
Star Tribune
April 30, 2003


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