Aiming at ‘Consumer Information’

By Robert Rothman — March 29, 1989 11 min read

St Paul--When Gov. Rudy G. Perpich of Minnesota talks about testing, he often harks back to his days as a dental student.

Most dental schools in the state, he recalls, spent a great deal of time teaching how to insert gold foil in teeth, even though dentists seldom employ that technique.

This mismatch between teaching and practice occurred, he says, because the state dental board’s examination, which was required for certification, contained questions on gold foil.

“Everything was focused on the state board” exam, he notes, adding that “we might be better dentists” if it had focused on other techniques.

Now, Governor Perpich has proposed a test for 6th and 10th graders that could have at least as strong an influence on elementary and secondary schools as the state dental-board examination had on dental schools.

In fact, some say the test could become one of the most powerful in the country. Because of the state’s new “open enrollment” law, they point out, Minnesota test scores will be the first in the nation to be used as “consumer information” by parents choosing where to enroll their children.

The test would also mark a radical departure from Minnesota’s current system for assessing school performance. Although the state regularly tests students to evaluate programs and diagnose strengths and weaknesses, it has, because of its strong tradition of local control, resisted implementing a single test that all students would take.

And the proposal represents an about-face for Governor Perpich, who has hitherto been a vocal champion of the local-control tradition. But Mr. Perpich and the state’s education commissioner, Ruth E. Randall, now argue that the open-enrollment law makes the test an essential.

Parents need the information it will provide in order to make wise choices among schools, according to Ms. Randall. “You can’t market something if you don’t have information,” she says.

But the testing plan faces an uphill battle in the legislature against lawmakers who consider it a step backward at a time when critics nationwide are suggesting that schools should reconsider their emphasis on high-stakes testing.

Echoing these critics, the lawmakers and their allies in school groups contend that the proposal would create unfair comparisons among districts and put pressure on administrators to revise their curricula to raise test scores.

Rather than spend $1.7 million on a new test that would generate problems, the legislators say, the state should improve the existing testing system to gather better information about student abilities.

That system should be used to “develop a profile that paints a fuller picture” of performance, says Senator James C. Pehler, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“It should not just say, ‘We are in the top 10,”’ he adds. “I don’t think that has value.”

But Governor Perpich, while acknowledging that he has “mixed feelings” about testing, nevertheless predicts that his proposal will ultimately prevail.

“I think it’s an idea whose time has come in Minnesota,” he says.

Although Minnesota has resisted pressures felt in many states during the past five years to implement a statewide test, it has adopted a variety of testing programs aimed at helping districts assess their curricula and their students’ progress.

The programs include:

The Statewide Assessment Program. State officials test a sample of students in major curricular areas to provide statewide norms against which districts can compare their performance.

The Assurance of Mastery program. Using locally established standards, the state tests students at risk of “making insufficient progress” in math and communications skills. If these students are found not to be making sufficient progress, districts are required to meet with their parents and develop individual remediation plans.

An “item bank.” The state maintains a “bank” of some 110,000 test questions that local districts and teachers can use in designing their own tests.

Biennial reviews. The state reviews local testing programs every two years to ensure that they are meeting their stated objectives.

The goal of the state initiatives, according to William McMillan, director of Minnesota’s assessment program, “is more to improve than prove.”

But critics, led by the business community, have argued that the “hydra-headed testing scheme” has failed to provide accurate data on the quality of the school system, according to John Cairns, former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group of 80 chief executive officers of the state’s largest corporations.

“The farther away you get from the classroom,” Mr. Cairns suggests, “the fuzzier the system of assessment.”

“At the state level, you had only a general sense of how well kids performed,” he says.

What was needed, the business group concluded in a 1985 report, was a system that would provide “baseline data” to guide policymakers.

“Unless you have a baseline,” Mr. Cairns says, “you wouldn’t know whether you were going backward or forward, or, when you looked five years later, whether you made the right investment.”

Citing his own reservations about testing, Governor Perpich rejected the business group’s recommendation, and the proposal went nowhere in the legislature.

But two factors convinced him, Mr. Perpich says, to change his mind.

The first was the open-enrollment law, which demanded some form of consumer information, he says.

The second was a report issued in December by the legislative auditor that cast doubt on the quality of many of the state’s high schools. That report recommended a statewide testing system to provide policymakers with reliable data on school peformance.

“The auditor’s report said we need to compare apples with apples,” the Governor notes.

In his state of the state message this year, Governor Perpich called for a test in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies in the 6th and 10th grades. The results would be released by district.

Senator Ember D. Reichgott, who unsuccessfully sponsored a testing bill in 1988, has introduced legislation in the current session to create a testing program similar to the one proposed by the Governor; the Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the proposal this month.

Although she acknowledges that the plan encountered “significant resistance” last year, Ms. Reichgott says the Governor’s endorsement, as well as the choice law and the auditor’s report, have given it a substantial boost.

“The idea has picked up support” in the past year, she claims.

Nevertheless, the proposal still faces considerable opposition from teachers’ groups, local officials, and key lawmakers.

“We’re not against testing students, provided the results are not used in any manner harmful to children,” argues Walter Munsterman, vice president of the Minnesota Education Association. “We do have questions about using test scores for marketing purposes. Children may be damaged because of that.”

Parents may opt out of districts with low test scores, he notes, but “there will always be students not able to leave the system.”

“What will happen to them?” he asks. “Will they become the have-nots?”

The business partnership, argues Representative Bob McEachern, chairman of the House Education Committee, “believes there are winners and losers. But there shouldn’t be any losers in education.”

Responds the partnership’s Mr. Cairns: “I don’t have much patience with that argument.”

“The reality is,” he says, “that there are a frightening number of losers in the public-school system right now, and a frightening proportion of these come from low socioeconomic conditions.”

“All testing would do,” he con4tends, “is give more ammunition to identify strategies to produce a fewer number of losers.”

But critics question whether the tests would provide useful information.

Using test scores for comparisons would be unfair, contends Representative McEachern, because differences in scores are related to differences in socioeconomic status.

“Every district is a little bit different,” Mr. McEachern points out. “If you want to look at good scores, go to Edina. The richest people in Minnesota live in Edina.”

“Across the Minnehaha River in Minneapolis is a whole different arena,” he adds. “If you compare their scores, the Minneapolis kids aren’t going to do as well.”

“We know where the bad school districts are,” he says. “We didn’t need the legislative auditor to tell us 25 percent weren’t doing the job. We knew that. We’re doing something about it.”

“With the amount of funding we give them,” he adds, “by and large they are doing all they can.”

Moreover, argues Richard J. Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, standardized-test scores are an inadequate measure of school quality.

“Legislators, the department of education, and the education community understand full well that standardized tests don’t measure much of anything outside of the ability to take tests,” he says.

Even if the test could provide useful data, contends Senator Pehler, testing pupils as late as 6th grade would do little to help elementary students.

“If we are looking at that from the perspective of students’ falling behind in the curriculum,” he says, “we should know as early as we can, and go back and make sure the student catches up.”

“We’ve turned some off by the 3rd grade,” he points out. “Are we going to wait until 6th grade to help them?”

In addition to yielding little useful data, opponents say, a statewide test could harm school programs by inducing administrators and teachers to adjust their practices to raise test scores.

For example, suggests Mr. Munsterman of the teachers’ union, administrators may seek to exclude from the test population students in special education and others who may be low-performing.

“If I were an administrator with a large number of special-education pupils, I’d find some way around the system,” he admits. “Those are the rules of competition and survival.”

More likely, though, is the possibility that teachers will adjust their curricula to match the material on the test.

“There is a danger any time you use tests for competition,” says Mr. Munsterman. “Teachers will teach students to pass a particular test. If that were to happen, that would be really sad.”

“Teachers are going to be forced to do some of that,” he adds. “Otherwise, their job is on the line, and the school district they teach in is on the line.”

Governor Perpich, pointing to his dental-school experience, acknowledges that such an outcome is likely.

“If I were a teacher,” he says, “I’d make sure I get an old test and teach to that. I’d be forced to.”

Ms. Randall, the education commissioner, draws a distinction between teaching particular test items, which she says would be “terrible,” and teaching skills that are tested.

If the test is properly designed to measure abilities educators agree students should have, adds Senator Reichgott, teachers should teach to the test.

“So what if they do?” she asks. “If the test is good, and is testing the skills we think are important, as long as teachers don’t teach actual questions, then they are accomplishing what we are trying to do.”

But to Representative McEachern, that notion “goes against our philosophy of curriculum.”

“The curriculum should drive the tests; the test shouldn’t drive the curriculum,” he says.

Rather than mandate a particular type of instruction, Mr. Anderson of the school-boards association argues, the state should continue to develop broad goals for student learning and allow local districts to incorporate those goals into their curricula.

In fact, the state board of education voted this month to require districts to ensure that all students master the learning goals as a condition for high-school graduation.

But Ms. Randall responds that the open-enrollment system increases the need for more uniform curricula around the state as well. Otherwise, she suggests, students may have difficulty moving from one district to another.

“We need to raise the level of what’s going on” around the state, she argues. “Tests can help to drive the curriculum. And they’ll help make sure we have a high-level curriculum.”

If the new testing program is adopted, state officials will aim to expand it eventually to include additional forms of assessment, including measures based on observations of student behavior, work portfolios, and student and parent attitudes, according to Ms. Randall.

Such additional measures are essential, notes Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, to give parents and policymakers an accu4rate picture of school quality.

“We have more good, reliable information about cars and refrigerators than we do about schools,” he says. “If we have multiple expectations for schools, we ought to have multiple measures of effectiveness.’'

“If this is not done,” he adds, “a great deal of resources will be devoted to looking good on one measure.”

In response to such criticisms, Senator Reichgott has since amended her original bill to require additional forms of assessment.

Under her revised proposal, the state would develop a test in the four core areas, based on specified learner outcomes. In addition, districts would be required to survey teachers and students in each school to gather information on their attitudes toward the school.

Eventually, Governor Perpich says, the assessment ought to be broad enough to provide an accurate profile of school quality. That profile, he suggests, should include not only test results but information on the environment a school creates for its students, as measured by such attributes as: types of social interaction, levels of student self-esteem, and opportunities for student leadership.

“These are all part of what a school does,” he points out. “We have to have ways to measure that.”

This is one of a series of reports underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Aiming at ‘Consumer Information’