- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 13

Audit wisely recommends more focused approach to student testing

Although Minnesota and local school districts spend considerable time and money on standardized tests, their usefulness is limited. Too many local educators have difficulty interpreting and using the state test data to help students. And over the years, the tests were used to attempt to measure too many things.

Those are among the findings of a recently released state legislative auditor’s report. The results should prompt state officials to reevaluate and streamline required student testing.

Minnesota requires districts to administer two exams each year - the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCAs) and the ACCESS test for English Language Learners. Both are given to meet federal testing rules.

Last year, the state spent $19.2 million on standardized tests, with the federal government picking up one-third of that amount. A majority of state school districts set aside at least three to five weeks for MCA testing in 2016. Staff often are diverted from other duties and nearly one in five districts and charter schools hired additional staff to administer the tests and had to cover the additional costs. A requirement that tests be given electronically also means some districts spend time rotating students among available computers, which adds to the time needed for testing, according to the report from the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA).

A large majority of teachers and principals who responded to the OLA survey said MCA scores help pinpoint achievement gaps and determine whether students meet standards. Still, they believe the local exams they select and pay for are more helpful in evaluating student needs.

Among the OLA’s key recommendations are: The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) should collect more information for local schools on the costs and impact of state tests to help inform policy choices; the education department should expand support to schools to help understand and use the test data; and the Legislature should remove or re-examine certain legal requirements that prescribe specific test designs or reporting formats, and instead clarify overall testing priorities.

Those are smart starting points to reevaluate what the tests should accomplish. The report noted that the exams are now used for multiple purposes, including measuring growth, proficiency, evaluating teachers and course placement at state colleges. Those legislative efforts to make the MCA measure too much generally didn’t work, according to the OLA.

However, before changes can occur state officials must have a clear understanding of how the new Trump administration interprets testing rules. Under current federal law, testing is mandated in reading, math and science in middle and high school. But other specifics of federal requirements from the new administration are unknown.

MDE officials called the OLA report “thorough and fair” and agreed to increase outreach to school districts to help them use the test data successfully. And to MDE’s credit, the OLA said the department has done a good job of selecting and monitoring its test vendors. The auditor was originally asked to study state testing, in part, because of a couple of highly publicized test results mistakes that occurred a few years ago.

Ultimately, state officials need to settle on a test that aligns with state and federal standards and allows for district-to-district and state-to-state comparisons. They need to focus on setting priorities for what they want from the tests and make sure that local districts have the support they need to use the results effectively.

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The Free Press of Mankato, March 10

Travel ban: New executive order better, still a bad idea

President Trump’s second attempt to block entry to the United States from certain largely Muslim nations is a major improvement over his first. It is, however, still offensive to core American values and still a solution in search of a problem.

Gone are some of the blatant excesses of Trump’s initial executive order, struck down by federal courts. He does not now exclude holders of valid green cards and previously issued visas. The number of countries whose citizens were banned is now six instead of seven. The blanket ban that was core to the first order is softened. And it no longer puts an explicit religious test on refugees.

These are improvements. They also, as noted by the FiveThirtyEight website’s analysis, undercut the rationale offered for the first order. For example: The legal justification for the seven was they were the nations listed by the Obama administration as “countries of concern.” Removing Iraq for geopolitical reasons (the war against the Islamic State) undermines that argument.

But the president has never had a factual basis for his obsession with immigration from Muslim nations. Few people from the six (or seven) nations on Trump’s list have attempted attacks in the United States. Most of those convicted or killed attempting such attacks were U.S.-born citizens.

That’s a fact. The intelligent inference to be drawn from that fact is that banning travel from the six remaining nations under Trump’s ban (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen) does nothing to enhance national security. The further inference is that Trump’s ban bolsters the extremist argument that the United States is at war with Islam itself.

The new order will certainly face court challenges, and may well fall to those challenges, as the first one did. But even if it survives constitutional scrutiny, it’s still lousy policy. Trump would have done better to let the matter lie.

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The Journal of New Ulm, March 8

Do we really need to tell farmers how to mow ditches?

A legislative battle is being fought this week over roadside ditches. That’s right - ditches.

To the average motorist traveling along state highways and roads, these ditches are just part of the landscape. But to farmers, the ditches are considered vital resources.

Many farmers have been mowing the ditches along their land for years. The grass is baled as hay and used as a food source for cattle and horses. For years, many farmers and other landowners believed they owned the land right up to the center of the ditch. And every inch of land is valuable to the farming operation and can’t go unused. Unfortunately, owning the land up to the center is only the case for county and township roads. It’s not true for state roads.

Unfortunately, in a world of shrinking wildlife habitat, ditches are seen as resources for pheasants and other birds, and habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies.

The controversy developed after the Minnesota Department of Transportation recently decided to enforce regulations put on the books more than 30 years ago. The regulations made it illegal to mow the ditches full-width until after July 31. The mowing delay was built in to give the ringnecks and other birds the opportunity to nest and re-nest.

Landowners are now required to file for permits to mow the ditches by Jan. 31. If no permit is filed by Jan. 31, anyone can file a permit to mow the ditches.

Here are the requirements that go with the permit:

- A certificate of insurance. The amount of insurance shall have a limit of not less than $1 million per occurrence and $2 million in the aggregate.

- A Minnesota Department of Transportation approved high-visibility safety vest and a hard hat need to be worn by the person mowing the ditches.

- A rotating amber light needs to be on the tractor used to mow the ditches.

- No ditches can be mowed before Aug. 1 or after Aug. 31.

- The area maintenance supervisor must be contacted prior to cutting and when finished.

The cost of insurance may make the mowing too costly to reap any benefit from the hay. The time requirement is also probably too restrictive for the farmer to get any benefit from the grass.

State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, is moving forward to fight for the farmers’ rights to mow the ditches without unnecessary government regulation.

“People are frustrated,” Swedzinski said. “They see this as another example of government encroachment with unelected bureaucrats in St. Paul making decisions that illustrate yet again how out of touch they are with rural Minnesota.”

Swedzinki has authored a bill that prohibits road authorities from regulating when ditches may or may not be mowed and also prevents requiring permits to be obtained for mowing. He expects his bill to hit the House floor this week. The Senate has already approved a similar bill.

The idea of a farmer needing a permit to do what he or she has been doing safely for generations appears to be over-regulation. We urge the House to approve Swedzinski’s legislation.

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