Minneapolis is offering a special cram course for high school seniors who need to retake the reading test they must pass to graduate.
Calling something a "boot camp" doesn't make it sound like very much fun.
But when Minneapolis public school officials decided to hold a three-week cram session for high school seniors who weren't able to pass required state reading and writing graduation tests, that's what they called it among themselves until they could think of something more appealing.
Unfortunately, the name stuck.
"We ought to get little camo T-shirts," joked Mary Berrie, executive director of alternative and extended learning programs for the district.
Seniors in Minnesota high schools this year are required to pass a new series of graduation tests before they can receive their diplomas. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Education released figures showing that statewide, about 8 percent of seniors have failed to pass either the reading or writing test, or both.
While Minneapolis doesn't have the data yet showing how many of its students are at risk, the district has planned the three-week boot camp to help students prepare for a reading retest opportunity in July.
The tests are called the GRAD tests, which stands for Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma.
Statewide, the reading test has caused more problems for seniors than the writing test, which is why Minneapolis is focusing on that.
The district has held after-school classes for students throughout the school year, Berrie said, but "students just weren't enrolling. Our students really believed that they would pass the test, and we were sitting around one day thinking, 'Wait until graduation comes and they haven't passed the test. What are we going to do about that?' You can't have kids walking at graduation and say, 'Just kidding, you don't get to have your diploma.' "
The reading test that seniors need to pass was first given to them in 10th grade, and the writing test was first given in ninth grade. Technically, students can retake the test six weeks after their last testing, using that time for remediation. But because the testing is only offered at the beginning of every month, they have to wait eight weeks.
Until this year, seniors had to pass a series of tests called the "Basic Skills Test" to graduate. They were designed to measure basic proficiency and were first given in eighth grade. The new tests are designed to test more advanced skills.
For the boot camp, which will begin after school ends, Minneapolis officials looked at the test and developed a course to help students prepare for it. The district has 240 spots set aside at Patrick Henry, Edison, South and Washburn high schools for students, although more sections can be added if more students are interested.
There will be spots for 60 students at each location, for three hours a day during the three-week session. There will be no more than 15 students in each class, with two adults running the show.
And it's all non-fiction reading that they'll be studying.
The district will know in a few weeks how many of its seniors are not graduating because of the new tests, said Dave Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the district. Despite the higher test bar students need to clear this year, he doesn't anticipate that it will be many more than under the previous rounds of tests -- that amounted to several hundred students statewide.
"We're pretty confident that most students will be able to graduate on time at the same rate as they did" under the old tests, he said.
That would have been different if students had been required to pass the new math test, Heistad said.
Educators statewide were relieved last year when the Legislature exempted students from passing the math test, because early indications showed that the state's graduation rate would have taken a big hit. This spring, for example, only 58 percent of the juniors who took the test passed what would have been the math graduation requirement.
Students still have to take the math test, and retake it twice if they fail, but after three times failing they are exempt from the requirement.
"If we had proceeded with the math test at that very high achievement level, we would have seen many more students not on track," Heistad said.
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460