Legislature rethinks rules for grad tests

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2010 - 11:27 PM

Required tests in algebra II and biology would count for 25 percent of a student's grade and the state would take on the issue of grade inflation under proposed legislation.

State tests that Minnesota high school seniors are required to pass this year for the first time to graduate would be replaced by a broader set of tests -- and unique sanctions for schools that inflate grades -- under a bill that gets a hearing Friday before a committee in the Legislature.

The changes proposed by the state Department of Education would require state tests at the end of algebra II and biology courses. Those courses are required to graduate, and the new tests would be worth a quarter of the grade for the courses. Required exams in geometry and chemistry or physics eventually would be added.

The bill also would require the state to monitor whether students' grades align with scores on their state tests -- a measure designed to deter schools from bowing to pressure to inflate grades. Officials said that Minnesota would be the first state to enact such a curb against grade inflation.

The bill eventually would force high schools that continue to inflate grades to pay for remedial courses that their graduates may need to take in college -- up to one remedial course per subject.

The goal, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren told legislators on Wednesday, is "no grade inflation, and no dumbing-down of the curriculum and telling a student they had done well when in fact they had not been taught what they needed to be taught."

If the legislation passes, schools would be required to begin giving the new tests in three years, starting with 10th-graders, and they -- the class of 2015 -- would be the first that must pass them to graduate.

The current generation of tests, called GRAD -- Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma -- are designed to measure whether a student is prepared to succeed beyond high school. It has a ninth-grade writing test, a 10th-grade reading test and an 11th-grade math test.

Educators were relieved last spring when the Legislature threw out the GRAD math test requirement, saying it was too hard. Now, students can graduate if they've passed the test once or failed it three times. Dissatisfaction with that test led state educators and policymakers to seek a new approach.

"We want to begin to point the arrows in our K-12 system towards success," said Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. He led a task force that contributed to the suggested changes.

Recent data from the Minnesota Department of Education show that 13 percent of seniors have yet to pass the reading test and 3 percent have yet to pass the writing test.

The proposed system is called ACCESS, for Achieving College- and Career-Readiness for Every Student's Success. In addition to taking the end-of-course exams, students would take a "language arts" exam in 10th grade that would test reading and writing ability.

Students would be able to get around the requirement by showing that they can be successful in some other specific ways, such as receiving a certain "college-readiness" math or science score on the ACT or SAT. There would also be an appeals process.

"We want to move away from this ... one-size-fits-all, 'Everybody-march-in-lock-step' model," said Pekel.

Some school officials said it would be unfair to "sanction" districts financially for perceived grade inflation.

"There is a wide variety of legitimate grading practices in the state," said Matthew Mohs, acting chief accountability officer for the St. Paul public schools.

Brenda Cassellius, associate superintendent for the Minneapolis public schools, said, "I'm not sure how we would pay for higher ed sanctions."

But she, like Mohs, endorsed most of the proposed changes.

"We have to have opportunities to push high standards and high rigor," she said. "Students do rise to the expectations we set for them if they know clearly what they need to do."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

  • For more information For a summary of what's in the bill that the Legislature is considering, go to bit.ly/dr3vM7.
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