11th-grade math test could send grad rates plunging

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2008 - 9:30 PM

The state Education Department is waiting to see whether legislators want to keep the test, which includes graduation standards in a larger proficiency test.

The Legislature needs to quickly decide what to do about a high-stakes 11th-grade math exam that is worrying Minnesota educators and parents, Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren told legislators Monday.

At a joint hearing of the Senate Education Committee and the House E-12 Education Committee, Seagren said that the department is about six months behind in its work to create tests on new education standards because it wants the Legislature to decide what's going to be done about an 11th-grade math test that will be required for graduation starting with the graduating class of 2010.

"We need some guidance," Seagren said. "We just don't know what to do now. ... We don't want to spend a lot of money on a test that ultimately, the Legislature says, 'No, we don't want to do that.'"

The math graduation test questions are embedded in a broader math exam designed to assess proficiency. Although the state hasn't said how well students must do to graduate, the early signs aren't good. Last spring, only one-third of juniors were proficient on the state math test.

The state hasn't said how many of those students would have passed the graduation test, but educators predict that if the Legislature doesn't do something in the next session, graduation rates may drop dramatically in 2010.

One possible solution is to transition to "end-of-course" exams, which test student proficiency at the end of a course such as Algebra II, according to Kent Pekel, executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota.

Pekel told the legislators that a group of Minnesota education officials is traveling to Washington next week to meet with a group from states that are already implementing or considering end-of-course exams.

Jenni Norlin-Weaver, director for teaching and learning in the Edina School District, suggested that holding "harmless" the classes of 2010 and 2011 would be a good idea until the state finds a better solution.

She also suggested creating alternative ways, such as good math performance on the ACT or AP exams, to demonstrate competency.

Minnesota already has graduation tests in place, but those exams are being replaced.

The Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (GRAD) tests are required for the class of 2010, which has already taken the writing and reading exams and will take the math test in April.

Nationwide, 23 states have high-stakes exit exams, according to the Center on Education Policy, in Washington.

Minnesota educators say that students who don't pass the math test won't find out until the end of their junior year, which leaves just one year for busy high school seniors to learn the material and try again. They will have about seven or eight opportunities to retake the test, said Dirk Mattson, director of assessment and testing for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Some legislators bristled at the suggestion of several educators that the state is in this position because of the Legislature alone.

"For all of you to come say to us, '[the problem] is you,' " said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, "No. We make decisions based on the recommendations of experts."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541

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