Seattle teacher protest echoes in Minneapolis

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February 26, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Minneapolis Public Schools teachers Valerie Rittler and Robert Panning-Miller.
Dylan Thomas
Concerns about standardized tests zero in on MAP

A teacher boycott 1,700 miles away in Seattle has inspired some Minneapolis educators to speak out against the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, a computerized reading and math assessment used in school districts across the country.

“It’s something that is really doing harm to students,” said South High School teacher Robert Panning-Miller in February, addressing the School Board for the second time in as many meetings. “It’s taking away time from valuable learning.”

Joining Panning-Miller at recent School Board meetings have been other Minneapolis teachers who share his concerns with the MAP, a test they say does not provide meaningful feedback on student achievement, disrupts classroom learning and ties up computer labs for weeks at a time. The teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School cited those reasons and more for refusing to administer the test in December, sparking a boycott that spread to other public high schools in that district.

Panning-Miller said the local effort to scrap the MAP — an optional test, unlike the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment [MCA] tests districts are required to administer — was motivated by a larger concern over the role standardized testing. Instead of highlighting accomplishments, he argued, they are more often used to blame schools and teachers perceived as failing.

“The issue it ultimately comes down to is standardized tests are being used as a tool to tear down public education and teachers unions as a part of that,” Panning-Miller said.

Southwest High School teacher Valerie Rittler, another MAP opponent, added: “Something very bad is happening in public education right now, and Minneapolis is very vulnerable.” 

A flexible assessment

District evaluation and testing specialist Eric Vandenberk said Minneapolis Public Schools has used some version of the MAP for about a decade. The test is administered in grades 2–9 at least once and up to three times per school year, but most students take it once in the fall and a second time in the spring.

At a cost of $10.50 per student, the district will spend about $235,500 this school year to license the test from publisher Northwest Evaluation Association [NWEA], according to Eric Moore, director of the district’s Research, Evaluation and Assessment Department.

Vandenberk said district administrators like the MAP because of its “flexibility.”

Unlike the MCAs, administered just once a year in the spring, the MAP tests offer multiple snapshots of student math and reading proficiency over the course of a school year. And while the MCAs test students’ mastery of state standards, the MAP, an “adaptive test,” allows students to demonstrate knowledge above and beyond those standards.

At a district level, MAP results give valuable insight into the achievement gap, he added.

Vandenberk said MAP results play just a “small” role in school ratings, which are mostly based on MCA results. And it is again the MCA, and not the MAP test, that will factor in a statewide teacher evaluation system due in 2014.

One member of the state’s Teacher Evaluation Work Group, David Heistad, the former Minneapolis data guru now working for Bloomington Public Schools, said MCA results would account for 35 percent of a teachers score on the annual evaluations. But in the search for a better so-called value-added test, one that purports to measure teachers’ impact on student learning, the work group is proposing “a move toward a state assessment just like the MAP that measures progress accurately for all students,” Heistad wrote in an email.

Questioning accuracy

Panning-Miller and Rittler expressed doubts about the accuracy of the MAP, and said talk about including that or similar tests in teacher evaluations only heightened their concerns.

Addressing the School Board in February, Panning-Miller noted the predicted year-to-year growth for some elementary students on the MAP test fell within the standard deviation for the assessment, meaning the appearance student growth, or lack of it, could amount to a statistical error.

“If you can have a score that says you went up one grade, but standard deviation says you may have actually gone down half a grade, that’s not very useful,” he said.

Asked to respond, Vandenberk said: “That’s true, and that can be true of any assessment,” adding the deviation was “much smaller for the MAP” than some other tests.

Chief Academic Officer Emily Puetz responded to another criticism of the MAP: that it doesn’t mesh with what students are learning in Minneapolis classrooms.

“The research says it’s about a 75- to 80-percent correlation to [state] standards,” Puetz said.

For Panning-Miller and Rittler, who are both ninth-grade social studies teachers, the MAP is an unwelcome disruption in their instruction. During a two- to three-week testing window, students are pulled out of their classes to take the test in school computer labs. As is the case with other computerized tests, MAP testing closes those labs to other students.

“Our computer labs are closed to instruction 40 days of the school year,” Rittler told the School Board. “More importantly, with every test that is given, I lose anywhere from one-fourth to all of my students for two days.”

Later, she said of the MAP, specifically: “For me, it means my classes are very thinly attended for a three-week period.”

A role for tests
School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said she’s heard from teachers who “find great value” in the MAP and its detailed tracking of student performance over time. But complaints the MAP eating up classroom time and putting computer labs off limits are common, added Gagnon, who sits on the board’s teaching and learning committee.

A former chair of that committee, School Board Member Carla Bates, said society “has a right and a need to know” what is happening in schools, and standardized tests fill that role. While the No Child Left Behind era soured many parents and educators on high-stakes testing, Bates said the backlash was “equally wrong-headed.”

Both Rittler and Panning-Miller said they’d opted their own children out of the MAP tests, as did some of the other parents and teachers who joined them at the School Board this winter.

“As a parent, I have no interest in knowing what my children’s test scores are on the MAP,” Panning-Miller said. “I want to talk to the teachers and I want to know what they’re doing in the classroom, and that’s the meaningful information.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.