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Photo: A high school algebra class.

Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

Chart: Closing Achievement Gaps.

Star Tribune, Minnesota Department of Education/

Minnesota shouldn't ease up on basic-skills tests

  • Article by: David Olson and Charlie Weaver
  • March 31, 2013 - 5:59 PM

It’s not money, it’s not unfunded mandates, it’s not tenure, it’s not public vs. private and it’s not class size.

There are two major challenges that Minnesota’s K-12 education system must deal with if our students are to be prepared to compete for jobs in the 21st century. The first is making sure that a high school diploma means a student is prepared for a postsecondary education. The second is closing the nation-leading academic achievement gap that persists between our white and nonwhite students.

If we can get these two things right, not only will Minnesota students rightly earn their place among the best in the world, but every child in our state will benefit from a rigorous education that sets clear standards and demands proficiency.

Unfortunately, one of the best tools we have to improve student preparedness and close the achievement gap doesn’t create front-page headlines (like money and class size), or mobilize thousands for rallies or protests (like tenure). That tool? Testing — to ensure that all kids meet basic academic expectations. In Minnesota, business leaders have continually fought for it, higher-education institutions are demanding it and all students are benefiting from it.

It’s so effective that there isn’t a rational explanation for why legislators and education officials in Minnesota want to scrap it.

Legislation supported by the state’s commissioner of education would eliminate the reading and writing GRAD exams that Minnesota high-schoolers currently must pass to earn a diploma (the requirement to pass the math GRAD exam was suspended in 2009 — and in the chart below, you can see what happened to academic achievement when the math test was no longer required to graduate).

Instead of eliminating these tests, legislators should keep them as we transition to a new system based on what is used by our state’s higher-education institutions. Right now, 40 percent of Minnesota high school graduates who go on to attend a Minnesota postsecondary institution need remedial help (primarily in math) when they get there. What good is Minnesota’s 78 percent high school graduation rate if almost half of the graduates aren’t prepared for college or a career and technical school?

We can fix this. Our organizations — working with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) — have developed a proposal to align high school exams with postsecondary admissions. These tests, taken in eighth, 10th and 11th grade in reading, writing, math and science, would identify how well students are prepared for a postsecondary option — whether that’s their immediate plan or not.

If we are serious about closing our nation-leading achievement gaps, eliminating basic expectations does not make sense. We’d also be ignoring the negative impacts of practices like social promotion and grade inflation, as well as research on how teacher expectations for students can differ based on race and income.

The gains made by minority students are real and proved by GRAD exam results. The accompanying chart clearly demonstrates how much improvement different student groups have made since the reading and writing tests became mandatory. To highlight just one example: The improvement for African-American students in reading was three times greater than it was for white students.

When taken together, Minnesota’s nonwhite students have demonstrated a 7 percent improvement in reading and a 9 percent improvement in writing since testing began. By eliminating the GRAD exams and any other basic expectations, we would lose the best tool we have for measuring student achievement and identifying where extra help is needed.

Further, backing away from basic expectations won’t help our students prepare for a future when a high school diploma isn’t enough to get a job. By the time this year’s seventh-graders graduate from high school, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require completion of some level of postsecondary education.

A Minnesota high school diploma has to be more than a timecard. Testing to the standards that our postsecondary institutions require, and expecting Minnesota students to meet them, will help ensure that. Getting rid of the tests because it’s politically expedient doesn’t help anyone, and will only guarantee that Minnesota kids are lapped in the international race for the jobs of the future.

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David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which represents 2,400 businesses across Minnesota. Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 100 CEOs from Minnesota’s largest employers.

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