Math test causing division at schools

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2012 - 5:57 AM

Teachers and students debate whether it's too hard, but the future of GRAD test depends on the Legislature.

Calculate the slope of a line with a graph. Solve the variables in an algebraic equation. Solve the area of a rectangular prism. Starting in 2015, Minnesota students won't earn a high school diploma without answering questions like these.

The state set out to create a math test to ensure that high school students graduate with enough skills to skip remedial work in college or on the job. It succeeded so well that many may not graduate at all.

Now a state panel mostly of educators wants the Legislature to eliminate the exit exam, saying that it will do more harm than good.

Those educators agree that students need to learn these skills to avoid repeating classes in college. But they argue that the GRAD -- Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma -- test is the wrong way to go about it. Strict enforcement of the math test will keep as many as 20 percent of students from going on to college or having a diploma to show employers. Their recommendation is to start earlier with a suite of tests helping students plan the skills they'll need, diagnose what their deficiencies are and give them time to recover by graduation.

But dropping GRAD looks like backsliding to business interests, who point to the increasing number of graduates needing remedial work in college and argue that student performance is only falling further behind international competitors.

While the educators want legislators to eliminate all the exit exams, the controversy has focused on math. The test challenges students in such areas as number sense, patterns and algebra, statistics and probability, spatial sense and geometry. The 40-question untimed test can be retaken "many" times, according to the state Department of Education, and students must get about 30 of them right to pass.

Students themselves disagree about whether an exit exam would force them to learn. If you're a senior in IB math studies 2, like Minneapolis Roosevelt High School's Jose Mejia, "for me, it was kind of easy," even though he found he'd forgotten a few things he learned in eighth grade.

But he isn't in favor of having it become a graduation requirement for younger students. "Everybody's saying it's the hardest test; many of the people are failing it," he said.

But to Khalique Rogers at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, "it's not that bad. People just don't study hard enough for it. I haven't passed it yet, but I believe if I study harder, I can pass," the senior said in an e-mail. His math teacher at the alternative school, Marty Gaslin, agreed.

"I believe that once students are required to pass, there will be a higher success rate on the test," Gaslin said.

Remedial classes

One argument for insisting on a high standard is that 40 percent of Minnesota students require remedial classes if they enter the state's public higher education system, according to a 2010 study by the two higher education systems. That includes 32 percent who need math makeup courses, about twice the rate as for reading or writing.

That's why Jim Bartholomew, education director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, advocates keeping GRAD. "If you're referred to a remediation program, your chances of completing [college] are pretty slim. You're spending time. You're spending money. You're not taking the core program. That's a travesty," he said.

Those in favor of eliminating the exit exams say the math test sets a passing score that's higher than the admissions standard for many public colleges in the state. One solution would be to lower that bar, so that the passing score more approaches the entrance requirements for public colleges.

A key difference

Sara Van Der Werf, the head of math for the Minneapolis public schools, said that GRAD and alternatives such as the ACT and the SAT all test at similar levels. A key difference is that GRAD is a pass-fail and the others are not.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius disputed the contention of critics that the recommendations to kill GRAD lowers the bar. Her department could develop its own replacement fitted to Minnesota standards like GRAD or adopt another like the ACT. "But if we do use the ACT, that's a very rigorous bar. What we're saying is, let's get a better test," she said.

Roosevelt senior Mayco Mejia hopes to take technical college classes in auto mechanics. He didn't pass GRAD when it was embedded in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test he took as a junior, so now he'll retake it Monday. Students now must get remedial help and retake the exam twice to graduate.

Catching up

"It was very hard, the hardest class I ever took," Mejia said. He felt he started falling behind during Algebra 2, but he's been staying after school recently for twice-weekly 90-minute sessions to help him with the GRAD. He doesn't think it's fair that younger students will have to pass a test their older peers don't have to.

At Roosevelt, senior Ikra Ali is waiting to see whether she passes the second GRAD retake. She scored lower in her second try, finding graphing and geometry particularly hard.

"Math is really hard for me," she said. She worried for younger classmates who will be denied diplomas if they fail to pass, barring a change. "They won't go to college, and they won't get jobs," she said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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