Impact of the calendar on MCA testing

One of the things EMID families have learned to take with a large grain of salt are MCA test results. Even though now-Commissioner Brenda Cassalius was once our Superintendent, she has done nothing to reform the MCA testing calendar that so disadvantages year-round schools like ours. The MCA is still administered within a calendar-year window, and our kids have had roughly six weeks less time with their teachers when that window rolls around each year. This means that comparing our scores with schools that use a typical calendar is not very meaningful.

This year we have seen a number of efforts by other school districts to reform MCA testing calendar policies, or their own school calendar policies, to adjust for much smaller deviations from the norm. For example, just today Tim Post ran a story on MPR about rural districts worried about the impact of snow days on their MCA scores.

Officials in the Morris School district pushed some of testing in May back by a week to give students and teachers time to catch up after the disruptions of several snow days and late starts.

“A week matters,” Morris High School Principal Craig Peterson said. “Five more days of instruction matters, it matters for our kids.”

Such efforts show just how nervous school officials can get around the results of MCA tests.

Other districts have been trying to get the legislature to allow earlier school start dates in order to boost test scores.

The Le Sueur-Henderson School District has taken an approach similar to St. Peter’s, discussing the possibility of changing the calendar, but holding off on making any firm plans or asking for community input.

“If you look at our calendar, we have used the same one for a long time,” Hanson said during a recent school board meeting. “We have the problem of finishing the semester after students get home from their break. If we started school earlier, it would also give us two weeks more to prepare for state testing. What we’re looking for is how we can use that time best for our students to learn the best and get the best instruction.”

A study by Education Next in 2010 shows the impact missed education days can have. They point out that decision makers often overlook the contribution of time to standardized test results.

One implication of this oversight is that accountability systems are ignoring information relevant to understanding schools’ performance. Year-to-year improvements in the share of students performing well on state assessments can be accomplished by changes in school practices, or by increases in students’ exposure to school. Depending on the financial or political costs of extending school years, those with a stake in education might think differently about gains attributable to the quality of instruction provided and gains attributable to the quantity.

All of these concerns are about schools missing days or at most a week or two of instructional time before testing. Now recall that EMID schools are at a six week deficit when the MCA window rolls around. Six weeks. Our students are still in the midst of their third quarter when tested, while traditional schools are well into the fourth quarter during this statewide testing window.

As families, we have understand that Crosswinds is a great school because we see the results with our kids. We know they are learning, and in other tests that measure individual student growth we have even seen data of the achievement gap narrowing. We realize that the MCA test results do not show Crosswinds in the best light, but we don’t let that worry us. However, as some of this data is shared with legislators with the intentionally misleading comparison with traditional calendar schools, there is a danger they will leap to the conclusion that Crosswinds is underperforming. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that Crosswinds is doing a great job, but that job cannot be accurately reflected in a standardized test which is administered six weeks earlier to Crosswinds students than to everyone else. Let’s hope that legislators understand the data they are being shown.