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Austin test scores show graduation is a big motivator

Here are some numbers to ponder from the recently released Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments-Series II:

• Among students who took math tests at Banfield Elementary, Neveln Elementary, Southgate Elementary, Sumner Elementary and Ellis Middle School, 67 percent showed proficiency.

• In those same schools, 72 percent showed proficiency on the reading exam.

• 33 percent of juniors at Austin High School demonstrated proficiency in math.

• 81 percent of sophomores at Austin High School demonstrated proficiency in reading.

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So here’s the million-dollar question: Why do reading scores go up when high school students take the MCA tests, but math scores plummet?

It’s a matter of motivation.

When sophomores sat down to take the reading test this year, they did so with the full knowledge that their high school diploma was at stake. Incorporated into the exam was a new test, the MCA II/GRAD, and failing it would mean that students wouldn’t be eligible to graduate unless they retook the test and passed it.

And wonder of wonders, four out of five students at Austin High School got the job done on the first try.

It’s high time that the stakes were raised. One of the biggest drawbacks of standardized testing in the "No Child Left Behind" era is that too often, teachers have far more to lose than do their students. When high school students know that a test will not affect their grade and that their scores won’t be sent to colleges, some of them lose interest.

This year’s math scores prove that point; however, as Austin’s class of 2010 considers what classes they will take this fall, their teachers and administrators will have an extra tool available to encourage them to take challenging math courses.

Next spring, the MCA math test will also include a GRAD exam. So, when students ask why they should care about the test, their teachers will have an easy answer: "You want to graduate, don’t you?"

As a result, one year from now we’ll have a far more accurate assessment of how much math Austin’s l students actually know, and how well our math teachers are performing.

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We hope to be pleasantly surprised. Until then, we’ll put off the hand-wringing.

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