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Minnesota school leaders are beginning to wrestle with another major challenge in an already complicated year: how they'll pull off high-stakes testing if many students are still attending school from home.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring and schools abruptly shifted online, the federal government waived its requirement for standardized testing. Minnesota students got a year off from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, a series of math, reading and science exams that provide a window into how many students are mastering state standards — and whether the state is making progress in narrowing its persistent achievement gaps.

For now, however, a second reprieve from testing requirements seems unlikely. President-elect Joe Biden has not said how he'd handle standardized testing during the pandemic, or appointed his education secretary. The Trump administration has said it will not approve testing waivers, and states that do not test students will risk losing critical federal funding. Minnesota Department of Education officials say they expect to get more direction in the months to come. They are planning on in-person MCAs this spring — but aren't sure how schools will do that if the pandemic is still raging.

"It's really tough right now to try to nail down what the plan will be," said Bobbie Burnham, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Education.

The MCAs aren't the only test upended by the pandemic. In the spring, many school districts canceled the reading and math assessments they typically do a couple of times a year to check students' performance. College-entrance exams were delayed until summer, and tests for Advanced Placement courses moved online.

In the chaos of switching to distance learning in a matter of days, many Minnesota educators saw the cancellation of the MCAs as an obvious decision. Some greeted the move with relief; the increasing nationwide focus on high-stakes testing in recent years is an ongoing topic of debate. Eliminating the tests freed teachers to focus on students' most pressing needs, rather than test preparations.

"At that point last spring we all wanted to do the best to make sure those kids were [doing] OK, as kids," said Brian Hodge-Rice, a third-grade teacher at Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul.

Schools miss results

Many school leaders were more concerned about the cancellation of the last round of classroom "formative" assessments, rather than the MCAs. That's because those check-ins provide immediate results about specific students, allowing teachers to tailor their lessons as needed.

The MCAs, on the other hand, primarily provide a big-picture look at how well school buildings and districts are doing on state standards, and results aren't released until months later — well after the students have moved on to another grade level.

"The fact that the MCAs got disrupted I don't think had a dramatic impact other than we missed out on our spring data," said Christine Tucci Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district. "We are more concerned we missed out on our formative assessments last spring."

Districts' schedules and types of classroom assessments vary, but many have gotten back on track this fall — even if the tests are online. St. Paul Public Schools, for example, have been in distance learning since the start of the year, but tested students in second through eighth grade.

Craig Anderson, executive director of St. Paul Public Schools' Office of Teaching and Learning, said district leaders can't ensure the data from the testing is entirely accurate because students may have had help from a parent or older sibling. But he said the results are very similar to those from the 2019-20 school year, which is "encouraging."

Bloomington Public Schools administered an academic progress test to students this fall, when students were in class for part-time, hybrid instruction. The test the district uses has to be taken in person, as do the MCAs, so a recent shift to distance learning could mean the cancellation of the next round of tests, said David Heistad, the district's executive director of research, evaluation and assessment.

"Now with districts moving back to distance learning for most elementary students, they're not going to have that tool available," he said.

Minnesota Department of Education officials said the MCAs can't be taken at home, and have to be administered in the presence of school staff. That means schools operating in distance or hybrid modes would likely have to find ways to safely transport students to testing sites for the exams, which are typically administered over several days. Some might have to find additional space for socially distanced testing centers.

State officials have not yet provided districts and charter schools with specific guidance about how they'd make socially distanced testing work. Jennifer Dugan, director of the department's research and assessment division, said school leaders should wait to worry about those details.

"They should be concentrating on the safety and well-being [of students], not 'How I am I going to bus somebody to a testing location in March?' " she said.

More students opt out

But if schools don't have a straightforward system for testing, it's possible some students would opt out, putting holes in the data districts and the state and federal government use to assess schools' performance. Though federal law mandates that schools test at least 95% of their students, it also allows students to opt out of testing. Even before the pandemic, a growing number of Minnesota students were choosing to sit out the MCAs, especially in high schools.

Missing test score data, either from large groups of students opting out or if testing is again canceled altogether, affects how the state identifies and provides help for struggling schools. Test scores, along with graduation rates and attendance, are among the key measures in Minnesota's North Star accountability system for schools. Each year, the state tracks school performance and puts some schools in a three-year improvement program, with specific goals and outside guidance.

Whatever happens with this year's MCAs, some educators wonder if the disruption may lead to changes in the way both schools and government think about and use assessments.

"We didn't do the high-stakes accountability testing last spring, and we survived," said Anderson, with St. Paul Public Schools. "So I'm hopeful there's a conversation on the horizon about why we assess and how we assess, and what it's used for."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790