Reading and writing tests required by the state have not been passed by many high school seniors.
Several thousand high school seniors in the state's Class of 2011 face the risk of not graduating because they haven't passed required reading and writing tests, echoing a situation from a year ago.
Minnesota Department of Education figures, released Wednesday to the Star Tribune, show that 4,872 seniors have yet to pass either or both of tests; that amounts to about 8 percent of all seniors tested.
This is the second year that passing both tests has been a state graduation requirement, and the figures are similar to those from last year. A final count for the Class of 2010, issued in January, found that 7 percent of seniors -- 4,794 -- had not passed either or both tests, even after additional chances to take them were offered beyond the school year.
Seniors are allowed to retake the tests after waiting six weeks, through the summer and into the fall. This year, the possibility of a state government shutdown starting July 1 could complicate matters, however. Although several school districts contacted about a shutdown said they have enough cash on hand or would borrow to continue operations as usual at least through the summer, it was unclear if the tests would still be administered.
State education officials familiar with the tests could not be reached for comment.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who has criticized the slow pace of Minnesota student test score improvement, expressed frustration over the latest findings.
"My sense of this is that this is another piece of data we've been getting over a number of months that show we are either staying stagnant, or falling a little behind," she said.
Cassellius aimed most of her disappointment at seniors' passing rates on the state math test, even though students still can graduate without it by meeting alternative requirements. Twenty-five percent of this year's seniors still haven't passed the math test.
"We really need to accelerate our focus on mathematics," Cassellius said. She has repeatedly stressed that Minnesota students need to acquire advanced technical skills to compete for the worldwide high-tech jobs of the future.
Math proficiency also will take on higher stakes beginning with the Class of 2015, when students will have to pass the math test as well as reading and writing to graduate.
Cassellius also focused on the writing test results, which showed a 97 percent passing rate among this year's seniors. "The writing numbers are pretty high," she said. "But I've been on record as saying it's a very easy test."
State writing tests are given starting in the ninth grade, reading tests beginning in 10th grade, and math tests in 11th grade.
The number of seniors who have come up short on the tests isn't final and is likely to drop. In 2010, for instance, several hundred seniors were able to pass their tests after the school year ended.
"It's important to state that many of these kids continue on in summer, and take the tests, and pass the tests, and do graduate," Cassellius said.
Something the test numbers don't show is the number of seniors who would not graduate regardless because they lack the required number of high school credits.
"That's the big mystery," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and a former schools superintendent.
"Of those 4,000 kids, some have multiple reasons for not graduating. You've got some kids who are two credits short of graduation. Those kids sometimes come back in summer schools and take the courses, sometimes they come back next year, and some don't ever graduate."
The four-year high school graduation rate for Minnesota was 76 percent for the 2009-10 school year. That percentage factors in students who dropped out of school and those who are continuing school beyond four years. It is not restricted to seniors.
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547