Minnesota urged to drop high-stakes graduation exams

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2012 - 7:28 PM

Advocates for the change say what's needed is an emphasis on remedying weaknesses before students start college or a job.

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Students prepared for state tests.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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A state education task force voted Tuesday to recommend dropping Minnesota's high-stakes graduation exams and replacing them with new exams designed to help students prepare for college or a job.

On a 26-2 vote, the educator-dominated group supported ending the GRAD tests in a recommendation to Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, but the proposal would have to make it through the Minnesota Legislature.

The only legislator attending the meeting of her department's Assessment and Accountability Working Group, Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, said she expects dropping the exit exams to be "well received" by legislators because of its focus on helping students gain skills where they are deficient.

Cassellius said the testing recommendations meet Gov. Mark Dayton's desire for "better and if possible less testing," but she hasn't yet briefed him on them. She plans to forward the group's report to legislators after a draft is completed in mid-December.

She said the Legislature needs to act soon to head off what's projected to be nearly a third of high school seniors being denied diplomas in 2015 for failing to pass the math exam. Until then, students who fail math three times are granted a waiver from the requirement. A smaller number of students already aren't graduating because they can't pass the reading test.

High school students would still take Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments to determine their proficiency in reading, math and science and measure school and district performance, and need to amass enough credits to graduate. But the new test would help them focus on remedying weaknesses before arriving in college or on the job.

Not without opposition

Eden Prairie High School Principal Conn McCartan said a system that informs a student and family how close he or she is to being ready for college is "more powerful" than a pass-fail graduation test.

But the proposal to drop the high school GRAD tests in math, reading and writing is likely to be opposed by business interests, which favor them as a means to certify that students have met certain standards.

"We are going backwards from where we are currently in terms of expectations on what a high school diploma means," said Amy Walstien, representing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Advocates for change argued there's no evidence that exit exams are improving student achievements. The approach the group is recommending uses a set of national tests -- such as those leading to the ACT -- to identify where students need help attaining skills to thrive in a college or a career. Those assessments should start in the eighth grade.

Few students now have difficulty passing the relatively easy writing test, and only 12 percent can't pass the reading exam, but the failure rate for the math GRAD is projected to be as high as 31 percent.

The task force also called for developing a new test for third- through seventh-graders to replace the current MCAs. It said the test should measure student growth and proficiency, adapt to ask questions focused at a student's particular level, be anchored in state standards and give teachers information to diagnose deficiencies.

Some educators on the group also said they want results quickly so that they can attend to student weaknesses before the school year ends, rather than getting them months later after a student has moved on to a new teacher or even a new school.

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