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Viewpoint: Accountability should focus on individual students

Accountability is a good word. It means: be responsible, liable for one’s action. I am sure I have used this word many times — in fact, maybe too many times with my children and now with grandchildren. It is a word that provides some proof, evidence that we are responsible for our actions. It is a good word.

We ask for individuals to be accountable. We want our government to be accountable. We want all of our institutions to be accountable. This is good.

But at times as we search for proof of accountability, we do some odd things.

Ever since a report was published in the early 1980s, “A Nation at Risk,” our public schools have been under siege with the latest phase of school accountability. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not saying our schools should not be accountable. They should be. My concern is with how we demonstrate or prove our schools are being responsible — we test, we test again, and then we test some more. There are never enough tests.

April is testing month in Minnesota public schools. If you have children in school, you will no doubt be getting, or have already received, instructions for this new round of testing. Get plenty of rest, eat a good breakfast, and try not to stress out. The No. 2 lead pencil is no longer necessary as the computer can do just about anything accept give us the correct answer. I imagine the computer could do that as well if the test givers would allow it to happen.

These never-ending tests are designed to measure our students’ learning against grade level standards. In Minnesota, the tests are known as the MCAs or Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. These assessments are given in reading, math, science and in some grades, writing. These tests are administered in some form to all Minnesota students in our public schools.

We have always tested students. Even back when I was a public school student, we all took the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) and the results were shared with our teachers, our parents and became part of our school records. Testing is not new, but today the stakes have been raised.

Today you have to pass a reading, math and writing test to graduate from high school. If you do not pass the first time, you can take it again and again, until you receive a passing grade.  This is in addition to receiving enough high school credits to graduate.

Has all this testing made schools more accountable? My answer is no. It has made school districts spend more of the resources on programmed curriculum that is aligned with the tests. It is making teaching less creative and more programmed. And it is creating great stress for students, parents and teachers.

About 10 percent of Minnesota children go to very accountable non-public or private schools.  These children do not have to pass state exams to graduate. Private school students have to pass classes and earn enough credits to graduate. These parents, paying a good deal of tuition dollars, trust the schools and the teaching staff to design and teach courses that are challenging and prepare their children for college and life’s work.

I am quite certain that all schools, public and private, test students. Testing can be very positive depending on how the tests results are used. Testing can help us to focus on a student’s strengths and to define the areas in need of improvement. Teachers will use the results to design instruction to focus on areas identified as needing improvement. 

But testing is being used as a way to rank our schools in the name of accountability. How is our school doing? How is our district doing? The question should be how is my student doing and what are we doing to help him or her improve. Our problem is not one of too little testing, it is one of too much testing and how the results are being used in the name of accountability.  If our focus is on the individual student, then we will not have to worry about the school or the district. This would be good use of the word accountable.

Tom Nelson is a former superintendent at the South Washington County and other metro area school districts. He lives in Woodbury.