Sunday, February 27, 2011

Governor Dayton: Don't Ax Funding for PLAN and EXPLORE

From time to time, I've written about our school district's scorecard system that tracks progress indicators towards the goal of preparing all students for post high school excellence. One benchmark that we use is the PLAN and EXPLORE scores on tests produced by the College Boards. PLAN and EXPLORE are preliminary ACT tests that are given to students in 8th and 10th grade. If you are a parent of a 10th or 11th grade student, you know that the ACT test is the most important gateway (along with the level of course-difficulty taken by the student) into college. ACT tests (in the Midwest) determine what level of college a student is likely to be admitted to. ACT results are used by colleges and universities as a check on grade point average, to determine whether the student is ready for coursework at the level of rigor at that college. Under the Pawlenty administration the MDE sponsored a small line item in the education budget that provided support for PLAN and EXPLORE testing, and Governor Dayton's budget makes a huge mistake in cutting that support. The decision to cut that support threatens to destroy one of the most important statewide systemic initiatives to assist parents and students to get ready for post high school career and college success.

PLAN and EXPLORE testing is designed give parents, students, teachers and schools early information on whether students are on track to succeed. It is a fabulous motivational system that causes kids to confront what they need to do to prepare for rigor, before it is too late. Too often, students discover the importance of the ACT in the last months before they have to take the test. Then, there is a mad rush to study practice exams, to purchase ACT preparatory booklets that seek to cram for vocabulary and math skills needed for the ACT.

It should be obvious that if student and parents recognize the importance of the ACT years before, that the student would have a far better chance of preparing. The EXPLORE test, usually given in 8th grade, provides the student with baseline information on the academic level of coursework for junior high students. It tells them whether they are on-track to reach their academic goals. Properly used by home room teachers and counselors, and of course parents, it is used as a course correction to plan high school coursework. A high score says to the student, you are on track to meet your goals. A low score says, look, if you continue at this level, you are going to have a rough time getting admitted into the college of your choice. Moreover, the EXPLORE test comes with a rich array of materials to assist schools and parents to make the necessary academic course corrections necessary to meet the students goals.

An important part of the EXPLORE test is that it engenders dialog at home and at school on what the student must do to get prepared, before it is too late. Our district has undertaken to deliver the EXPLORE and PLAN test, to use those scores to assist parents, teachers and students in planning for their future, and to track the level of student readiness for college on our district wide scorecard (Vision) cards. Our commitment to this testing system, our decision to integrate it into our scorecard system, our decision to train teachers parents and students in how best to use it did not happen by accident. It resulted from a decision at the state level to make the tests affordable to all students, and then to provide best practices training on how to get the most for the state's money.

The PLAN test is a mid-point progress test used by student, parent and school counselor to make mid-course corrections in 10th and 11th grade. Again, our district has begun to monitor test results on the PLAN test as a way of determining if our junior high schools and high schools are achieving district goals that demand improvement in the number of students who graduate ready for post high school success.

School districts all over the state have begun to integrate PLAN and EXPLORE into their infrastructure of academic counseling, evaluation, and school improvement. Partly that is because there is a high-quality program run by the Minnesota Department of Education designed to support systemic use of PLAN and EXPLORE. (click here) The MDE website states:

Minnesota strongly supports its students preparing for postsecondary education. Toward that end it subsidizes the cost for any public school eighth grader taking the EXPLORE and any public school tenth grader taking the PLAN, two tests that are part of ACT's College and Career Readiness System.
As a result of the State's commitment to systemic utilization of PLAN and EXPLORE, as well as professional staff development provided to districts, school districts have started to make major commitments to PLAN and EXPLORE.

The Dayton budget now cuts state funding support for PLAN and EXPLORE, just as districts like ours have begun to adopt them and integrate them. The State support is a small line item in the overall education budget. The decision to cut this important initiative is symptomatic of decades of lack of focus by the Department of Education in Minnesota. Time and time again, as the State moves forward with a project, just as it begins to pay dividends, a new commissioner, or new governor, seeking to place a personal stamp on education, cancels an initiative and moves funding into a brand new one. This year, the governor found $2 million to launch a new early childhood rating system. And, he found $11.9 million to create "excellence in education awards" which evidently will create a highly politicized competition to see who can get some extra money to run a program for a time, until the funds to support it are cancelled.

One of the great problems in education, that stifles its efficiency, and frankly drives local educators nuts, is the inability to take a state initiative and stick to it until it fosters systemic permanent change. The PLAN and EXPLORE testing system, is not just a testing system. It encourages students to take stock in their future plans. It provides them with comprehensive information on the skills that they will need to succeed in occupations that interest them. It provides early warning if they are not on track. Just as important is the fact that when educators across the state begin to utilize a quality program like this, the longer they work with it the better they do. Over and over again, we hear from educators, can't you guys stay on course!? Do you have to keep starting new programs, cancelling them, and then forcing us to start all over again.

When something works, the state should ride it to the end and keep riding it. If Governor Dayton wants to reform public education, he could start by being the governor that told the MDE to keep doing what works, instead of zigging and zagging. If the state cuts its support for PLAN and EXPLORE, all of the work already done towards this initiative is going to go down the drain. Unions will pressure their district to cancel the costs of tests on the grounds that "there is too much testing already." School districts faced with monumental budget challenges will toss the program in midstream on the grounds that it lacks sufficient public support. The infrastructure at the MDE that has developed training programs will disappear as fewer districts maintain the PLAN and EXPLORE system, and another initiative will bite the dust.

We don't need excellence grants in Minnesota, we need excellence. What we need is systemic, statewide excellence integrated across the state in all schools. The PLAN and EXPLORE initiative was perhaps the most cost-effective initiative undertaken in a long time to provide tools to parents and students, along with their schools, to get them ready for college, and the decision to cut state funding for that initiative was a huge mistake.

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