Good Question: Who Writes The Questions For MCA Tests?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In Miss Plana’s third grade class at Brimhall Elementary School, students just took their very first official state standardized reading test. It won’t be their last.

In Minnesota, hundreds of thousands of kids are taking Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, which are part of the state’s educational standards, required by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

With all of these exams, who decides what questions are on the test?

“It’s a long process,” said Alice Golden, a reading assessment specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Every test question goes through a process of about two years,” she explained. “I know, most people are very surprised by that.”

Each math, reading and science question starts with a national test-writing company. Minnesota uses Pearson Assessments.

Then the reading questions go to Golden.

“We do a lot of editing of the questions,” she said.

The questions go through five different panels of teachers.

“Teachers continually give us feedback, ‘Yes, it’s appropriate for grade 10’ or ‘No, it’s not appropriate for grade 10,'” said Golden.

After the 12- to 18-month mark, the state will sneak the question onto the official MCA exam, as a field test to see what happens. Those questions’ answers won’t count on the students official results.

Golden and her department then analyze the results to make sure the questions are fair for all students.

“Have you had it happen, where boys get the question and girls don’t?” asked WCCO reporter Jason DeRusha.

“Absolutely. Even though we have spent many months getting that particular question ready, it will be thrown out of our bank and it will say ‘Reject! Do not use,'” said Golden.
The key to a good test question, according to Golden, is “how well does it match the state standard?”

The state has specific standards for each grade level in reading, math and science. That’s why Minnesota’s test is different from other states.

“We want questions to be in some instances hard but fair and in some instances easy but fair,” she said, explaining that the goal is to test the progress for the average student against the state’s standards.

Minnesota’s Department of Education employs 25 people working on writing tests and analyzing assessment data, according to Golden.

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  • Linda LeBoutillier

    This article makes it sound like the MN Department of Education makes the MCA test. Nothing could be further from the truth. These tests are made by Pearson Educational Testing, located in the state of Iowa. (Testing companies always prepare tests for students who are NOT in the same state.) But do teachers write all the questions? Not on your life! Questions are submitted by part-time workers that are paid per question and listed as “consultants” so they end up having to pay a higher income tax rate on what they earn. The workers generally have a college degree, but not many of them are actually teachers. the public should know that schools spend millions of dollars every year for tests prepared by these companies. It’s a business, pure and simple. I’m a teacher, and I work directly with these tests, so I know. I’m the one who collects the tests and boxes them up to send to Pearson for scoring.

  • TMac

    The millions of dollars could be going back into our schools to hire the best, and most creative teachers to teach our children. The pay off would be much higher than these wasteful state tests. If it were up to me the whole system for standardized testing would be thrown out. My children spent class hours and homework hours studying for the state tests, which to me is not a true assessment of their progress, but a test of their memory skills… how much they can memorize. Frankly, I’m disgusted our politicians continue to be stupid enough to back this system.

  • Gary Allen


    You are dead wrong, and it’s sad you took the time to incite alarm about a process you know nothing about. Admittingly, you collect the tests, box them up, and send them to Pearson. Good for you. Speak about how many tests fit in one box, and how many boxes you can stack in one pile. I was a Scoring Director for Pearson and I can speak to the fact that the Minnesota teachers DO select the ‘question’ or prompt, they DO select the rubric and anchor papers per prompt to ensure scoring calibration, and they are they–the Minnesota teachers and testing administration–are primary in every step of the testing process. Furthermore, every Pearson professional involved with educational assessments has a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and has passed qualification tests for every assessment in which they’re involved.

    • Anonymous

      Gary, you are correct. Thank you for clarifying that to Linda. In addition to having a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree (although most have Master’s), test developers were teachers in their previous career, contrary to Linda’s assumption.

    • Linda LeBoutillier

      I am aware that the MN Department of Education has a hand in the selection of test questions and that teachers do give input.

      I was one of the teachers who helped MDE fashion the rubric for the writing section of the tests , which are no longer given because they take too long to score. Based on that experience, I know exactly how the scoring for constructed responses works. And I regularly field input from classroom teachers about test questions.

      Sure the people who write the questions have a Bachelor’s degree, but they are not necessarily classroom teachers, as the public imagines. That was my point. And frankly, the people at MN Department of Education are no longer classroom teachers, either. Many have not been in a classroom for many years. Those of us in the trenches look at some of the test questions and just shake our heads, every year.

      My point, though, is that this is business, and that Pearson gets plenty of money for writing tests. Fortunately for Pearson and other educational testing companies, the infamous No Child Left Behind mandates standardized testing. Testing companies have a captive clientelle, you might say, because their business now works just like that of the insurance companies. By law, we have to carry auto insurance, and frankly, we have to buy medical insurance, too, just to make sure we will not go bankrupt if we get sick. (Soon that will be mandatory, too.) Pearson and other testing companies make out like bandits because their clients HAVE TO buy standardized tests from somewhere, according to law. And it does cost millions of dollars, statewide. Tax dollars.

      Frankly, your test scores mean little on a day-to-day basis to classroom teachers, because in the first place, we don’t even get the test scores back until four months later, at the end of summer break, when the kids have been promoted to the next grade, and they are already assigned to another teacher.

      The test scores are just another way of crunching numbers so people feel like they are accomplishing something. Tell me, how do test scores reflect how good a mother someone will be? Do they tell how well someone will do at fixing cars, leading a church congregation, or cutting hair? Get real.

  • Paula

    My question is how much money is spent on these test?

    • Principal

      A ton of money is spent on these tests. It has created many jobs that just deal with testing. That is not counting the time spent on teaching test taking skills, training teachers on how to teach test taking skills, etc. Standardized testing has its place, but like everything in education, the pendulum swings way to far in one direction before going back the other way. 10 years ago the Profiles of Learning were discouraging paper and pencil tests, and were more focused on producing “projects.” Right now, it is all about standardized testing.

  • mom

    All I know is that the questions I have seen are not grade apporpriate. At parent teacher conferences my daughter’s 4th grade teacher showed me sample questions for the math part of the MCAs, There were algebra and geometry questions on there. What ever happened to kids learning long division in 4th grade. We complain that kids are growing up too fast but then in the same breath we say that they need to learn this and that because “we” are falling behind the Eastern Countries. A girl in my daughter’s class gets to take the test in another room because she needs a para to help her with the questions because she gets easily distracted. I think they are a joke

    • anonymous

      Just because your daughter is learning more than what you learned when you were in 4 grade does not mean the material is inappropriate. You should be proud that your daughter is getting the opportunity to ADVANCE with the times and learned more ADVANCED material at an earlier age. The more she can be taught in school (elementary) the more she will learn overall in her schooling. Then maybe she can obtain an even better job for herself as she is receiving more education at an early age.

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