“You lied to me!”

I was running for governor in 2006, and this young woman was on my case before I even got a word out. Once I regained my composure, I asked her what she meant.

“I did everything you adults told me to do,” she said. “I went to school every day, did my homework every day, got good grades. I got a diploma from a five-star Minnesota high school. I enrolled in community college. When I got there, they told me I had to take math and English over again because I had not really learned enough in high school. You adults told me that high school graduation meant that I had learned. But you lied to me!”

I was stunned, mad, embarrassed. I went to find the facts. In 2006, 28 percent of high school graduates who went to college in Minnesota (two- or four-year) ended up taking high school (remedial) classes in college. We lied to them. We gave them a diploma that was a fraud.

Now, over 10 years later we read in the Star Tribune that high school graduation is at an all-time high, according to a new report from the Minnesota Department of Education (“Graduation rate at high mark,” Feb. 28). The data seem to point in that direction — the percentage of students graduating from high school is up significantly (from 75 percent in 2006 to over 82 percent in 2016), while the percentage of those going to college requiring remedial education is down (from 28 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2015).

All true and on the face of it pretty fantastic. The message: In Minnesota we have done what few other places have done: We have gotten more of our students to learn — and to learn at ever-higher levels. It’s unbelievable!

Indeed, it is not believable. These two measures — graduation and remedial course-taking — tell us about events in the experience of students but not whether they learned.

We have three pieces of very reliable data on student learning that got left out.

First, in elementary and middle school, the National Assessment of Educational Progress measures the proficiency of our students in both reading and math. In the last 10 years, there has been no significant improvement in student learning — with only 40 to 50 percent of our students being rated as proficient or better. These are the students enrolling in our high schools.

Second, the ACT measures the degree to which our high school graduates are ready for college. Over the last 10 years, the average score has remained virtually unchanged — with only 30 percent of students meeting all of the ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness. Nevertheless, we graduate over 80 percent of students from high school, and the vast majority of them (75 percent) go on to college — and especially to our two-year colleges, where about one-third of them enroll.

So then what happens? The Department of Education argues that the reduction in remedial course-taking means that our students are better prepared. The data on student achievement in elementary, middle and high school say otherwise. And so do the outcomes for college students.

Over 80 percent of all remedial course-taking is done by students enrolled in our two-year colleges. For them, it is accurate to say that remedial course-taking has dropped. But that is largely because our two-year schools have redefined and redesigned how to support underprepared students, steering them away from old-style remedial classes.

What’s more important is that the percentage of students successfully graduating from our two-year institutions has dropped — only 49 percent now get a degree or transfer to another college.

Yes, we are graduating more students from high school, and enrolling more in college, and then we are letting more of them flounder and leave without getting a degree. That is a scandal.

We should put a warning label on our high school diplomas saying: “This is not a certification that you are ready for college.” Our system is failing students by lying to them. Reports and stories like these only perpetuate the lie and keep the rest of us in the dark.

And in the dark, things look a lot better than they really are.


Peter Hutchinson is a former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools and was the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2006.