In recent weeks, these pages have published arguments on both sides of this question:  Should Minnesota teens have to pass a statewide reading and writing test to get their high school diplomas?

Current law requires the high-stakes tests, yet proposals at the Legislature would scrap the requirement. That’s a bad idea.

A uniform, statewide academic goal can help students understand what is expected of them. A high school diploma should stand for something and, at the very least, should mean that a student who receives it is reasonably proficient in reading and writing.

For the past two years, Minnesota teens have had to pass the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) reading and writing tests to qualify for a high school diploma. Initially, a math exam also was included, but faced with dismal passing rates, the 2009 Legislature suspended that requirement.

In support of setting aside the overall GRAD standard, one lawmaker said, “Nobody ever learned anything by taking a test.’’ That’s true — simply taking an exam does not guarantee mastery of a subject. But the right test can be a valuable indicator of what a student has learned.

The recently unveiled House K-12 bill would adopt a new testing system coordinated to address postsecondary education and employment opportunities. But although measuring college and employment readiness is a worthwhile goal, it can be added without subtracting current graduation requirements.

Backing away from the GRAD standards would send the wrong message, especially at a time when U.S. students need to ramp up academic performance to be more globally competitive.

Any high school teacher knows that students can easily blow off an exam that has no consequences. Maintaining a statewide measure as one part of the graduation requirement makes related coursework more of a priority for students.

As we have argued in previous editorials, the remedy for ensuring that more students meet the standards and pass the tests is improving reading and writing education, not backing away from accountability.

It’s worth noting that a similar test aversion surfaced in the 1990s, when the eighth-grade level Basic Skills Test was required for graduation. At that time, some people worried that thousands of students wouldn’t graduate in the class of 2000. Now that standard, once considered too high, is too low.

According to the Education Commission of the States and the Center for Education Policy, 26 states require students to pass exit exams in order to get a high school diploma. And many states are moving toward adopting the national Common Core academic standards that could involve a national assessment of American student achievement, similar to many other developed, high-achieving nations.

During a news conference last month about a collaborative effort to increase graduation rates, state Department of Education officials said that about 23 percent of K-12 students fail to graduate in four years.

But they also reported significant gains in graduation rates between 2010 and 2012 — during the very years that the GRAD test has been in place. In those two years, they said, graduation rates for some groups of students of color increased by 4 and 5 percent.

Certainly, exemptions should be provided for special circumstances. New American students who are just learning English, for example, cannot be expected to master a reading exam right away. And students with learning disabilities or other special-­education needs may have to be assessed differently.

But the fact that 96.7 percent of the students who took the writing test and 91.1 percent who took the reading test passed in 2011 indicates that the current exam is not too far out of line with what is being taught in state schools.

The Legislature should stand by statewide reading and writing proficiency requirements for graduation, and state schools, parents and students should do the work needed to meet them.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board: on Twitter  |  on Facebook   |  on Instagram | on Google+