The path to high school graduation for Minnesota's next few graduating classes got significantly easier this month.

The Class of 2010 was going to be the first required to pass a new series of high-stakes state graduation tests before students were awarded their diplomas next spring.

But the Legislature recently decided that students no longer have to pass the 11th-grade math test -- many educators think it's too difficult -- and would have caused a precipitous drop in graduation rates next year.

Juniors already took their graduation math test this spring, and the statewide results for how well students performed come out in the next week or two.

The solution passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, however, could raise a few eyebrows: Students either have to pass the test once, or fail it three times, to graduate.

"They had to do something," said Don Pascoe, director of research, assessment and accountability for the Osseo schools. "They [had] set an extraordinarily challenging target for individuals to meet in order to graduate."

On the other hand, the short-term solution could send long-term mixed messages to kids about math, said Jim Bartholomew, the education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership.

"You're saying that we want and expect people to get to this level, to be able to pass this minimum competency test," he said. "Then on the other hand, you're saying 'But it doesn't really count.' "

'Inherently incoherent'

The graduation test questions are embedded in the state's broader state math exam designed to assess whether schools are doing their job in educating students. Although the state hasn't said how well students must do on the embedded questions to graduate, the early signs aren't good.

Last spring, only one-third of juniors were proficient on the state test. And the numbers were significantly worse for many low-income students and students of color.

"The results last year signaled that we needed to re-examine whether we wanted to have such draconian consequences of not graduating," said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who helped come up with the temporary solution. "You can't just blame the students. That would be very short-sighted."

Pascoe, of Osseo, said Minnesota's math test is asking for too much. His own research has estimated that a student who just barely is proficient on the state math test would score in the 75th percentile on the ACT.

"One student's life goal was to be a cosmetologist, and the school she wanted to go to required a high school diploma," Pascoe said. "It would have been a real sin for her not to go to cosmetology school because she didn't have really strong math skills."

The previous law required that students who fail a test wait at least six weeks before taking it again, to allow for remediation. That requirement remains: If students failed this spring's test, they need to study for six weeks before the first retest, and again for six weeks before the second retest, if they continue to fail.

At that point, the students will be allowed to graduate, provided they meet all other state and school district requirements.

"It's inherently incoherent," said Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium, who thinks the Legislature's solution is an "OK" temporary fix. "If we can't build a high school system where a teenager -- and not just a brainiac teenager -- can understand, 'This is what I have to do and this is how it will be measured,' we have failed."

The necessary education level

Pekel is in charge of a group that will be looking at how to rework the high school testing system because the Legislature's reprieve expires in five years.

The group will search for alternatives for Minnesota's tests -- including giving exams at the end of separate courses, instead of comprehensive "math" or "reading" exams. Their premise is that students should leave high school ready to pursue a career or college.

Underlying the debate about Minnesota's math test and its future is the question of what a diploma from Minnesota should really mean and whether it's acceptable to say that some students just don't need to be good at math.

"When we decide that every kid doesn't need to be educated to that level," Pekel said, "we really make the decision for that kid about what they want to do, long before they can make it for themselves."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460