Test-taking anxiety has gripped the Minnesota Legislature.

The high-stakes tests that Minnesota students must pass to graduate — criticized as outdated and unfair and defended as the sure proof that a high school diploma means something — may be about to disappear.

The Dayton administration and DFL legislative leaders want to scrap the so-called GRAD tests in writing, reading and math. They would replace them with tests aimed at better preparing students for college and careers, including a college entrance exam such as the ACT. The new tests would not have a minimum “cut score” students have to achieve to graduate.

“There is not one piece of research — I’ve asked critics to bring it to me twice — that it helps kids learn, it helps teachers teach or it helps predict college success,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who is passionate about changing the tests. “Why are we wasting millions of dollars on tests that deny diplomas to kids, based on one test score?”

On the other side are critics such as Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which has joined with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to fight elimination of the test-score standards for graduation.

“If the goal is to produce students who have world-class skills, why would we eliminate a test that ensures at least their competence in reading, writing and math?” Weaver asked.

The debate continues to simmering below the surface at the Capitol, even as stadium funding, guns and taxes are drawing the headlines. It’s occurring as Minnesota deals with serious chinks in its educational armor — a middling high school graduation rate and weak performance among poor and minority students.

At the same time, both sides agree that the jobs of the future will require better-prepared workers who have at least some post-high school education.

The GRAD tests, an acronym which stands for “Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma,” are spread across the high school years, with writing in ninth grade, reading in 10th grade and math in 11th grade. GRAD testing began for students who entered eighth grade in 2005.

Few states require grad tests

Students now must pass the writing and reading portions to graduate. They are required to take the math test, but they can graduate without passing it. By 2015, students also will be required to pass the math GRAD to get their diplomas.

High-stakes tests that can cost students their diploma remain rare in the United States. Minnesota education officials said that only eight states require students to pass such exams to graduate.

Cassellius said most Minnesota students pass the writing and reading tests, but she said the math test is challenging, particularly for minority students. “About 80 percent of kids of color don’t pass,” she said. “Can you imagine in two years, what would happen, when we denied diplomas to 80 percent of [minority] kids based on one test score?”

The proposed testing changes came from a task force of education experts, legislators, parents, teachers and business representatives. They agreed that testing should be more closely aligned with the higher-education institutions that college-bound students are aiming for, and that tests should identify problems earlier, help students focus on career and educational goals, and get students the remedial help they need before they graduate.

That would save time and money for students and colleges on remedial tests, supporters of the changes say.

Test overload?

“Let’s make sure tests matter,” Cassellius said. “Help teachers teach. Help kids learn. Get kids the help they need if they are behind.”

Cassellius said the changes also will help weed out some of the testing overload schools suffer from.

“Parents are going crazy,” she said. “MAP tests, NWEA tests, fluency tests ... the ACT, the Explore, the Plan, the MCA 1s and 2s and 3. … Parents are like, tested out. They think this is beyond crazy to them.”

Weaver said business leaders don’t object to changing the type of tests, and he likes the idea of tailoring high school testing more closely to the needs of colleges. He objects, however, to elimination of a minimum score students have to earn to graduate, calling it a vital issue for Minnesota’s future business growth.

“The biggest concern for the business community is the quality of the workforce, five, ten years, from now,” he said. “Frankly, now employers look around at the competence of students graduating from high school, and they’re worried. … If we fail to graduate students from high school who have basic competency, particularly in reading, writing and math, we will not produce the kind of workforce our companies need.”

Weaver said business groups are going to fight hard to preserve minimal testing standards and may conduct an advertising campaign to raise the issue’s profile.

“What they’re doing is they’re dumbing down the Minnesota high school diploma at a time when colleges and employers are expecting more from their graduates,” Weaver said.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, a retired English and journalism teacher who believes reading and writing skills are vital to success, has objected to the changes in committee hearings. “I think it’s a travesty if we repeal the GRAD exams for the diploma,” she said. “To me, this is a watering down.”

Underlying her support of the tests is a reverence for language. Erickson wants students to fully appreciate great literature, not just technical writing needed for work. “I want students to know that there’s a world beyond that,” she said. “We’re losing sight of the wealth found in words.”

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, who sponsored the testing changes in the House, is enthusiastic about the way the new testing system will improve learning.

“From early age, seventh, eighth grade, we’ll be looking at not only what students’ skills are, but what are their interests, what are their ambitions?” she said.

“I think it’s a huge change,” Brynaert said, one that could accomplish the impossible — making the school test of the future less offensive to all.

“It will be seen as a tool toward achieving goals and objectives, rather than a barrier,” she said.