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Mandated math tests may strain special ed curriculum

The math tests that Minnesota high school juniors must pass this year could have unintended and detrimental consequences for school districts. The tests, called the MCA II tests, are part of No Child Left Behind mandates to bring each student up ...

The math tests that Minnesota high school juniors must pass this year could have unintended and detrimental consequences for school districts.

The tests, called the MCA II tests, are part of No Child Left Behind mandates to bring each student up to a certain level of national proficiency. Schools that fail to do this will face sanctions.

Students that fail the tests will not graduate next year.

Park Rapids Area High School principal Al Judson foresees a wave of parents edging their kids into special education programs.

That's because a loophole in the testing mechanism allows students in private schools, home schools or special education programs to graduate without passing those tests.

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Whether the tests are realistic barometers of students' abilities to grasp higher math concepts is a debate raging across the country - and throughout the state.

"This year's juniors have to pass the grad part of the MCA IIs," Judson said. "There's some questions (on the test) that pertain just to graduation, some that pertain to graduation and overall proficiency and there's certain questions that are test questions to see if it's a valid question. We don't know which is which."

Judson questions where the one-size-fits-all philosophy behind NCLB is realistic.

"Let's say there are four quartiles of students," he theorized. "In the top quartile are your high-level, high-energy kids. The fourth quartile, there's going to be some kids that are special education. It doesn't mean that they're not intelligent; it's just that they learn in a different fashion."

Kids that have individualized education plans (IEPs) will graduate because they are within the NCLB allowances.

"But there's a significant section of kids that are going to be challenged because they don't have an IEP," Judson said. "They're not special education but math and algebra concepts do not come easily for them."

That's where he foresees parents taking advantage of those IEPs, getting their children into such plans.

"I would think there's going to be a lot of that and that's not the intent of special education but that's gonna happen a lot," he said.

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"So even with that, the student will graduate but the scores will reflect that the school is not making Adequate Yearly Progress and will still be categorized as a failure by No Child Left Behind standards."

Judson, a former math teacher, worries that students - and their brains - don't mature at the same rate, and they may not be able to understand abstract concepts taught in advanced math classes.

"I taught math and I don't know if I could pass it," he said of the MCA II test. "I probably could, up through the algebra II, but I never taught calculus or trigonometry. I can do basic trigonometry but I can't remember how to do the level that would be requested on there."

A recent study by the Brookings Institution, a well respected think tank, questioned whether Minnesota was ready for the challenge of bringing all eighth-grade math students up to Algebra I levels within the two-year requirement of NCLB.

The Institute's researchers said many junior high kids were struggling with basic arithmetic. Algebra was beyond their abilities, the Institute concluded.

"It's a tremendous concern and frustration," Judson said. "The expectations are unrealistic."

But Minnesota kids may be better positioned to meet those approaching deadlines, Judson believes.

Because the state set very high standards under the NCLB to implement the legislation, it has less ground to cover in the next two years, Judson believes.

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Other states set the bar lower in past years, so they could show improvement early on. Now they're forced to bridge a huge gap in the short time left to comply.

Judson bristles at the notion that teachers needed to be better trained and educated to do a better job for students.

"The assumption was that we weren't doing a very good job. Teachers here work very hard and the strategies they employ in the classroom are right on," he said.

"My thought is that we do the best we can for the kids we have and go from there," he said.

"And if they establish unrealistic goals, what are you trying to prove? You can pass a law that you want to eliminate world hunger. Does that mean it's gonna be gone? You want to pass a standard where everybody's going to reach a certain level of math. You can enact that but it doesn't mean that's gonna happen."

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