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U of M Study: The Impact of Minnesota's "Profile of Learning"

Excerpts from The Impact of Minnesota's "Profile of Learning" on Teaching and Learning in English and Social Studies Classroom

Patricia G. Avery, Professor
Richard Beach, Professor
Jodiann Coler, Graduate Student
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education and Human Development
Peik Hall, 159 Pillsbury Dr SE
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455

April 30, 2002


(See the Study)

Underlying the development of performance assessments is a constructivist philosophy toward teaching and learning. Although there are various interpretations of constructivism among scholars, most agree that it implies that students "construct" meaning by engaging in activities that require them to manipulate and synthesize data, rather than reproduce information. (3)

Minnesota business and community leaders, concerned that too many high school graduates did not have basic math and literacy skills, joined the call for educational reforms that would better prepare young people for the workforce. The notion that "seat time" should not qualify students for a high school diploma shifted attention toward "what students know and can do" as the criteria for graduation. In 1987, the Minnesota legislature directed the State Board of Education to identify "core learner outcomes" for each curriculum area, i.e., what should students know and be able to do in mathematics? In social studies? In English? (4-5)

It is the third goal [of Goals 2000] however, that bears directly on the standards-based assessment movement: American students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, Mathematics, Science history and geography. (America 2000, 1991, p.9) (5)

In 1990 the Minnesota State Board of Education declared its intention to develop a "results-oriented graduation requirement" based on student achievement as opposed to the current credit/course completion requirement. A Graduation Standards Executive Committee, composed of business, education and citizen groups, was appointed to review the process of moving toward this "results-oriented" system. (5)

The Profile required students to demonstrate a higher level of understanding through performance-based assessments. (7)

Students would receive credit for attempting a standard, even if their work was unsatisfactory. (9)

Involved extensive rethinking of their teaching. (10)

A "Performance package" is defined as a set of interrelated performance tasks that give students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a standard. The "Performance packages" were to be "embedded" into the curriculum. (10)

A CFL handout entitled "The A, B, C's of Performance Tasks," stipulated that the performance tasks in the packages should be authentic unbiased, and constructivist. (11)

The students were often required to be active participants in "constructing their own meaning" by collecting or manipulating data, posing hypotheses and making generalizations. Successful completion of a "performance package" frequently required students to work in cooperative groups or to interact with community members outside the classroom. (11)

Although many teachers found some merit in specific aspects of the "performance packages," the packages became a focal point for a barrage of criticism from teachers, parents, and community members. Schomaker and Marzano (1999) note that "most of the state assessment-based standards documents have contributed to the problem they were designed to address."(12)

They required teachers to use skills with which many were unfamiliar, such as using checklists or scoring rubrics. Some of the performance packages required content knowledge that teachers simply had not acquired. The sheer length of the packages (one was 65 pages!) was overwhelming to students and teachers alike. Many teachers complained that the performance packages were becoming the de facto curriculum. (12)

In early 2000, a poll released by the state teachers' union, Education Minnesota, indicated that 39% of the 608 teachers surveyed wanted to eliminate the Profile altogether; another 51% wanted significant changes; and only 9% of the teachers believed the Profile should remain in its current form (Draper, 2000). (14)

In the 2000 legislative session, the Profile narrowly escaped elimination. The House of Representatives voted 97-34 to delay indefinitely the implementation of the Profile as a graduation requirement. Conservatives proposed the North Star Standard, a plan that focuses on the "basics" in core subject area courses, as an alternative to the Profile. (15)

Profile supporters believed that the only bill that would pass both the House and Senate needed to include the Profile and the North Star Standard. However, Profile supporters, together with the CFL Commissioner, insisted that students in both Profile and North Star Standard districts take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, standardized tests for school accountability based on Profile-related goals. At the last minute, the North Star Standards supporters refused to sign the compromise bill, ostensibly because it required assessments that did not match the goals of their back-to-basics standards. The Senate passed a "Profile-only" bill 82-44 at 3:20 a.m. on May 18th. An hour and one-half later, members of the House cast the last vote of the longest legislative session in Minnesota history, and passed the "Profile-only" bill 99-27. (15)

The bill approved by the House and Senate gave districts much more control over the way in which the Profile was (or was not) to be implemented. (15)

Until April 19, 2002, there had been little discussion of the Profile. But on that date, the House Majority Leader introduced an amendment to repeal the Profile. The amendment won bi-partisan support, and passed 109-22 (Bakst, 2002). The vote in the Senate was tied, 33-33. Although Governor Jesse Ventura has supported the Profile, and thus would most likely veto a proposal to eliminate it, the "near-death" experience of the Profile jarred many of its supporters (Lonetree, 2002). In the annual Quality Counts report published in Education Week in early 2002, Minnesota's "grade" for "Standards and Accountability" dropped to a D- (Education Week, 2002). (16)

We use the term "authenticity" as it is defined by Fred M. Newmann and his associates at the University of Wisconsin: "Authenticity is the extent to which a lesson, assessment task, or sample of student performance represents construction of knowledge through the use of disciplined inquiry that has some value or meaning beyond success in the school" (Newmann & Associates, 1996, p. 164). (18)

The percentage of teachers who believe the Profile has had a positive impact on student learning ranges from 22% (increased students interest in English/social studies) to 51% (increased students higher level thinking). In many, though not a majority of classrooms, teachers perceive the Profile to be having a positive impact on student learning.

In interviews, teachers noted that constructivist instruction requires students to take responsibility for their own learning, apply their own knowledge, and work together collaboratively. (20)

Although the Profile appears to have had a positive impact in many classrooms, teachers perceive at least two very strong negative aspects to the Profile: More than four-fifths of the teachers believe the Profile has increased their preparation time, and over one-half report that working with the Profile has decreased their enjoyment of teaching. (22)

By far the most frequently mentioned issue for teachers in regards to implementation in our interviews was the "huge amount of time invested." More time was spent in preparation of the packages, pre-teaching in class, completing the performance assessments in class, grading the performance assessments, and on record-keeping and documentation. (23)

In many cases not only did teachers see the additional time as an issue, but also felt that the loss of time may have been equally well spent on other areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. (23)

Teachers indicated that adopting a performance assessment approach also represented a major increase in the amount of time devoted to evaluation and grading. In having to spend more time in monitoring and evaluating individual student work in class, teachers had less opportunity for large group discussion or lecture. Grading time in the evenings and on the weekend also increased, as they worked to consistently grade large numbers of performance assessments. Once social studies teacher reported, "Each ["Create a Nation"] project takes between 45 and 90 minutes to fully evaluate." In devising performance assessment tasks, they needed to develop self-evaluation checklists for students to complete, as well as provide their own evaluation on the same checklists. As one teacher noted, "I can't write out a checklist for every learning task for every student and still maintain the quality of instruction." Many teachers used the phrase "too much time" in discussing the time they devoted to evaluation and grading, noting in particular that they felt it decr4eased the time they could spend with students.

The teachers were most critical of what they perceived to be excessive record-keeping associated with performance-based evaluation and CFL reporting requirements. One teacher described this as involving completing "other checklists that have to be filled out and there are additional numbers that have to be recorded…the numbers, it's the incredible numbers, it's a hassle in terms of recording the number." Another explained: "Either way it equals extra hours of work at the end of the school year when we are swamped with work anyway. This extra time the teachers need to put in does not improve the students' education in any way. I see it as busywork, paper work, unnecessary bureaucratic requirements."

In order to keep track of students' completion of various standards necessary for graduation, teachers were required to monitor whether reach student was completing each standards and registering for courses that assured completion of all standards. One teacher described the process:

"We now take what was formerly a parent teacher conference day and have turned it into a registration day for next year's classes. We hope that with the parent, teacher, and student present, we won't accidentally let a kid go through grade 12 and find out that he/she is missing a graduation package that will prevent graduation. We teachers have to learn about registration and prepare materials for the conference as well as call parents and make appointments for their conferences."

Not only does record-keeping take more time, but teachers were asked to take on additional duties for record-keeping that they had not previously been responsible for.

The increased teacher time required of the Profile seems directly related to the finding that 53% of the teachers reported a loss in enjoyment of teaching.

Teachers who reported a "loss of enjoyment in teaching" on the questionnaire also often explained that the loss of favorite content or projects during Profile implementation was partly to blame. On teacher said, "I saw myself cutting activities that students enjoy to be replaced by CFL activities that neither I nor my students enjoy."

Another commented: "I've had units that I really love teaching and really enjoy and I've had to throw those out because they didn't meet the grad standard in my class. As far as I can see the grad standard drives curriculum…The important thing in the course is to cover the grad standard and the other stuff is secondary."

In these cases, the loss of curriculum or change in curricular focus was perceived negatively by teachers.

Many teachers cited specific examples of last content; entire chapters or units that had been cut in order to have enough class time for students to complete performance packages. Time spent in class on performance packages varied in the interview data from one to six weeks, with content being cut in order to complete the packages in all cases. One social studies teacher noted:

"We have had to cut out unites on the executive branch and judicial branch so that we could fit in the packages. The executive and judicial branch are what these kids should be learning, how to make a difference in their communities through the here branches of government rather than a weak attempt to try to change something that they feel content with in the first place."

In cases such as this, teachers were not only dismayed over the loss of content but also concerned about the usefulness of the time spent instead on performance packages. (24-26)

Overall, interviewees were far more likely to make negative comments about the Profile than positive comments.

However, actually implementing the constructivist agenda of the Profile proved to be difficult given what teachers perceived as inconsistent direction from CFL, lack of local support and resources, public misunderstanding of the Profile, conservative political attacks on the Profile, and resistance to change. (31)

One teacher argued that teachers would have readily accepted the Profile "if it had been generated from the general teaching populace instead of the state 'experts'." Another teacher said, "I felt insulted with the fact that the state came down as if none of us were doing this and threw these packages at us." In multiple interviews, a high degree of frustration, even anger, towards the state legislature and CFL for the top-down mandate was evident.

Some teachers saw little evidence of teacher involvement in the development of the Profile: "The mainstream Minnesota teacher didn't have a great deal of input into the thing."

Teachers were also critical of attempts to impose and external assessment system on their teaching. (34)

Lack of focus on teaching content. Some teachers were critical of what they perceived to be a shift away from teaching content towards a constructivist focus. They also perceived the Profile as representing a diminution in focus on subject matter content, particularly in terms of literature and history. On teacher said, "In our district, they don't value the content area. It's all about process--the content has no relevance anymore." These teachers were critical of the focus on "hands-on" learning projects, noting that "the projects that we do would never by anything that I would voluntarily choose to do." Some also noted that the increased focus on a constructivist approach entails a loss of "the basics." Given their concern with the need to focus on knowledge, they perceived that the performance assessments did not provide a valid measure of knowledge as opposed to "tests [that] show what you know." (36)

Teachers were also critical of what they perceived to be the diversion of funding from other areas in order to support the implementation of the Profile. One teacher note that "all the money that the district uses for curriculum development" has gone to write the Profile.

Some teachers also believed that state legislators were attempting to dictate education policy without an understanding of curriculum and instruction.

As one teacher noted, "The biggest thing I fear is that the legislators will start monkeying with something they don't understand. [This is] non-educated telling teachers what they ought to be doing." (37)

Most of us have decided that both the state and the district are trying to hold teachers accountable, but that those of us already doing a good job are being punished, which is a morale destroyer.

Teachers were also critical of what they perceived as the lobbying influence of business groups in shaping Profile legislation and attempting to further regulate and discredit teachers. They noted that calls for increased "accountability" reflected an imposition of a business model or discourse onto education.

Another teacher believed that "the entire Profile initiative began when business leaders wanted to improve the quality of Minnesota graduates so that the profit motive might be more fruitfully pursued." (38)

Accountability? Some teachers argued that if accountability was truly what the CFL and state legislature were seeking to accomplish, the Profile would not be a scientific measure because it relied upon subjective scoring and students' work was greatly influenced by pre-teaching in their courses. (39)

In most instances, the number of teachers reporting positive changes hovers around one-third. (40)

The results also suggest that the quality of preparation and resources provided to teachers is strongly associated with the way in which teachers view the impact of the Profile.

What we do not know is whether these teachers are predisposed to see the "glass half full," and those teachers who rated their preparation and resources as "fair" or "poor" are those who tend to see the "glass half empty," or whether the first group was actually involved in more substantive preparation and has access to better resources in terms of both quality and quantity. Studies of standards reform efforts throughout the country would lend support for the latter interpretation. (41)

The study does not, of course, tell us whether the Profile as actually promoted positive developments in classrooms; the study indicates that some teachers perceive the Profile to be having a positive impact on teaching and learning in their classrooms.

Phi Delta Kappan in 1999, Al Ramirez observed that "in state after state and school district after school district, the promise of rich assessment practices has evaporated to be replaced by the more practical and familiar approaches to testing" (p. 205). In many cases, public school officials have determined that performance-based assessments are not appropriate measure for high-stakes decisions. While the traditional testing format does not lend itself well to assessing complex thinking processes, it usually achieves high reliability and validity. (43)

It should be stressed that the Profile represents a significant departure from traditional views of teaching, learning and assessment-what Tyack and Cuban (1995) term the "grammar of schooling." Initially, school subjects become "learning areas," assignments and tests become "performance assessment packages," and grades of A, B, C, and D became scores of 4, 3, 2, and 1. It is not surprising that the Profile became quite controversial

As previously noted, CFL has recently adopted language that is more consistent with the "grammar of schooling." The learning area "Peoples and Cultures' has been renamed "Social Studies," and "Resource Management" is now "Economics and Business." And although still referred to by the media and the community as the "Profile of Learning," CFL has renamed it "Minnesota's High Standards."(44)

Perhaps most significant, however, is the transfer of control from CFL to the local school districts. Local control has long been a dominant theme in Minnesota's political culture. The high degree of control local school districts now have over the way in which the standards are implemented will probably defuse much of the vehement opposition to the Profile. On the other hand, because there is little accountability built into the system, the "high standard of performance across Minnesota" CFL had hoped to achieve is more elusive. (45)

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