Call it a pep rally for test prep.
Students around Minnesota are gearing up for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment-Series IIs, which are reading, math and science tests used to gauge school performance for the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The state tests are given on specific dates in mid-April through May.
The high stakes tests break down achievement rates by race and economic demographics and are used by the U.S. Department of Education to signify which schools are well performing and which need improvement.
If a school fails to meet No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly
Progress goals too many times in a row, it could fall victim to
restructuring or eventual closure. Those penalties have caused the MCA-IIs to be considered a curse word in
some circles. But at Lincoln Choice School, the students and staff are
aggressively preparing for the tests.
A 'good, good test'
On Thursday afternoon, students jumped around and yelled as confetti sprinkled the air, sixth-grader Mohamed Mohamoud and hundreds of his classmates sang "MCAs gonna be a good, good test" to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling.This is the fourth year of the "MCA-II Rocktown Tour" by Lincoln students, when students create their own program, along with trash-can drummers, dancing and school orchestra performances.
"It's a high stakes test and it's not something to be anxious about or something to fear," Lincoln Choice Principal James Sonju said, standing on a confetti-speckled gymnasium floor. "We say bring it on."
Lincoln Choice School has made adequate yearly progress each year. In 2008, 85 percent of Lincoln's students tested in math and reading reached proficiency, higher than Rochester's 74 percent proficiency in math and 77 percent in reading overall. Lincoln students brought their show to four different schools this year. Reading and mathematics tests are given in grades three through eight, and also 10 and 11. Science tests are given in three age groups, but they aren't used for Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Smaller schools without diverse populations, low-income and or special education students traditionally fare better on the MCA-II tests.Of the state’s 50 largest districts, only three made Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks last year. Contrast that with Byron, Mabel-Canton and Spring Grove public schools, three small southeastern Minnesota school districts who have made AYP each year since 2003.
Spring Grove Principal Nancy Gulbranson said there isn't one secret to their success. She credited her teachers and the community's parents.
"We talk of the tests, so [the students] don't have any surprises, but we really just keep our nose to the grindstone," Gulbranson said. "We have very good attendance, you can't teach an empty chair, and I think that helps immensely."
Measuring up relies on group effort
Politically, the tests are a cluster of contention. An entire school district can be listed as not meeting AYP benchmarks if one population doesn't measure up. One example: Spring Grove scored 68 percent proficiency among the 113 students tested in math last year. Rochester scored 74 percent proficiency among 5,259 students test. Spring Grove made AYP, though, and Rochester didn't because of particular populations.
The contention continues on a state level because each state has different tests, which vary in difficulty.
While more of Minnesota's schools are sliding toward "needing improvement" — almost half of the state's 2,303 schools measured were cited in 2009 — a 2007 Fordham Institute study pointed out that Minnesota's standards are more stringent compared to other states.
Critics say the MCA's aren't a true measure of student performance, but others say the MCA-IIs apply accountability to Minnesota's schools. Meanwhile, as adults argue about whether the tests are a true measure of a student's ability though, the tests continue to be rolled out.
Lincoln Choice fourth-grader Camille Lowell received an award last week for her test preparation. She's excited. "I'm really looking forward to [the test]," said 9-year-old Camille.