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State Reading Assessment’s Are Driving Our Schools off the Track, Time to Hop on Another Train

In 2016, City Pages had an article about Bonnie Laabs, a SPPS science teacher who promised to triple science proficiency scores if hired and then proceeded to accomplish this.

"Laabs, who has just earned a PhD in teaching kids with trauma, firstly devotes a lot of time to making sure the kids understand the science jargon that invariably dominates the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment – words like "inherited and acquired traits," "biotic and abiotic," "semiconductor and insulator.""

By providing students explicit instruction in the background knowledge and vocabulary students were going to encounter in a science assessment as well as other strategies shared, Dr. Laabs was able to help students succeed.

In Minnesota, as in most states when we have students take a state reading assessment it is called a "cold passage" meaning one where a student has probably not been exposed to the vocabulary or background knowledge and is expected to be able to comprehend the subject matter because we have viewed reading comprehension as a basic skill as opposed to a more complex task.

This has resulted in schools narrowing the curriculum, replacing science and social studies instruction with large literacy blocks.

Assessments are supposed to check instruction, but instead are driving it. It is time for us to change our assessments so they support a stronger science and liberal arts education our students and teachers need and deserve.

We should ask MDE to create a pilot for an Innovative Curriculum Based Assessment (CBA) to the Read Act/Bold Plan based on the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) created by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

A CBA is different than the MCA because it aligns with the curriculum students receive in school. Teachers and students are assessed for instruction and learning based on what they have learned in school as opposed to reading cold passages which are often dependent on a student’s outside knowledge.

Just as the LETRS pilot has elevated the conversation about improving foundational skills in Minnesota, an innovative piloted curriculum-based state assessment could accelerate more advanced instruction beyond foundational skills.

A visionary book on reading instruction is a short book by Dr. Alfred Tatum, titled Teaching Black Boys in the Elementary Grades Advanced Disciplinary Reading and Writing to Secure their Futures. In Minnesota, fewer than 4% of Black third graders scored as advanced readers. Tatum calls out states and districts for minimal incremental change approach and calls for us to “identify reading and writing practices that yield exponential growth”.

Our state reading assessments are inhibiting this growth by narrowing of the curriculum, science and social studies instruction are replaced or limited with reading strategies instruction that ultimately hurt the students who would benefit from a robust, multi-disciplinary approach to reading and writing as advanced by Dr. Tatum.

MCA tests have done little to improve reading instruction statewide.

A comprehension test is a summative assessment which does not provide feedback to stakeholders of the subcomponents of the assessment. We don’t know if a student lacks the foundational skills to read or if they didn’t understand the text.

In the AFT article by Hugh Catts on Rethinking Reading Comprehension it is argued that reading comprehension should not be viewed as a skill in the same category as phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, and vocab. Reading comprehension is a much more complex task where a student’s background knowledge plays a key role in their success. By not aligning tests with curriculum lead us to:

  • It is unfair to disadvantaged students who consistently score lower because of knowledge and/or language differences.

  • It is unfair to teachers, because the curricula that they are asked to follow are not well matched with the tests that assess success.

  • It is unfair to schools and school districts because considerable value is placed on the results of these tests and these results are quite resistant to change.


Have one skills reading assessment, as already outlined in the Read Act, that communicates to stakeholders proficiency of foundational skills by subcomponent: fluency, phonics, phonemic awareness and vocabulary. Continue to assess students identified students past third grade on foundational skills until mastery.

Instruct MDE to develop and pilot an innovative reading curriculum-based assessment (CBA) under the Innovative Assessment demonstration Authority (IADA).

With a CBA, students have exposure to the material, teachers have opportunity to teach and assessment checks for comprehension. A curriculum-based assessment can push districts to move away from strategies and test prep-based instruction and move towards a stronger liberal arts and multi-disciplinary curriculum. The tests are more representative of the knowledge learned in the classroom and creates a level playing field for all students. Louisiana and several other states have taken advantage of opportunities in the ESSA act to explore how to improve assessment so that promotes instruction our students need and deserve. Have included information about Louisiana’s approach below.

More information on knowledge-based curriculum and assessment:

Rethinking How to Promote Reading Comprehension:

Importance of knowledge-based liberal arts curriculum:

The Case for the Narrow View of Reading:

Lori and Mellissa Podcast: You are Wrong About Assessments: How Tennessee is looking to improve assessments

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