A MCA tests are a ‘one-day snapshot’ of student progress

Chad Smith

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) tests are state-mandated tests designed to track student academic progress at each of the state’s schools. After scoring on the high end of state results the previous year, this year’s MCA tests at Rushford-Peterson school went in the other direction.

However, R-P Principal Jake Timm said a one-day snapshot doesn’t always paint the most accurate picture of academic progress, something he mentioned last year after the positive test results.

“The tests are given once a year in the areas of reading, math, and science,” Timm said. “Students in grades three to eight take reading and math every year in the spring. Fifth grade and eighth-grade students take science, 10th graders take science and reading, while juniors take math. The state of Minnesota sets standards that they want our school districts to reach. They give each district an assessment at the end of each year to tell them where the students are at.”

The assessment tells each district whether they don’t meet, partially meet, or meet the state standards. Timm said the district looks at the MCA tests as a “one-day snapshot” and says the district teachers give formative and summative assessments throughout the year. That gives teachers a lot of data all year long that measures students’ progress more accurately than a one-day test.

Timm says during a one-day test in a small school, even one or two students who don’t do well on the test can have a big effect on the results. “When you’re in a class of 50 third graders, just one student is two percentage points,” Timm said.

“On a single day, one student may have come to school and not had breakfast that day,” he added. “Mom and dad may have argued that day. Kids may have gone through a lot of emotional stress on that one day we have to take a test and it can affect their results.”

Timm said the school takes the results and breaks them down. For example, in math, the test results include algebra, data and probability, geometry, and number sense.

“We take a look at each of those four areas to see if there were some areas that different classes did well in or not, if some of the classes were low or high compared to state standards, or are there some classes that did better or worse than the scores from last year,” he explained. “We look at things our students didn’t do as well in and try to figure out if it’s a subject we didn’t teach as well as the previous year.

“They may have done poorly in a single topic like geometry on the MCA, but the formative tests that we give on a more regular basis may tell us they actually understand geometry. Then we’ll find out where the gap was. We may have also known ahead of time from the formative tests that this group of students wasn’t getting geometry.”

The staff uses the MCA tests as “another piece of data” to figure out what they taught well the previous year and what they didn’t. If the teachers made a tweak to a subject like geometry the previous year after struggling the year prior and the scores climb, Timm said the tweak is the way they need to keep teaching that subject.

Two years ago, R-P students came in on the high end of the state MCA results. Timm had cautioned at that time results can fluctuate from year-to-year. He said teachers and administration never want or anticipate a drop in results, but they do know it’s a possibility.

“I was in no way guessing they were going to drop,” Timm recalled. “I’ve been around long enough and at small schools to know that things can change every year. We use the MCA results as a one-time result and not a be-all, end-all as far as how our students are doing. They’re just a measuring stick as to where we’re at and we can add what we already know about our kids to get as accurate a picture as possible.

“Our teachers know their kids well. You spend every day with a group of 20 to 25 kids, you’ll know their ups and downs much better than a standardized test could ever tell you.”