Did you watch the Olympics? Did you see how every athlete got a gold medal just for showing up?
That didn’t happen, of course, but in Minnesota we’ve adopted a “just show up for four years” standard for earning a high school diploma.
The Minnesota Department of Education recently announced that the state’s high school graduation rate increased nearly 2 percentage points in 2013. This signals progress, but celebration is premature.
Last year, lawmakers repealed the tests the state required for high school graduation, known as the GRAD exams, which required students to demonstrate basic competence in reading and writing before they could earn a diploma. Sadly, this retreat continues a trend started in 2009 when the Legislature and the governor agreed to “delay” requiring students to demonstrate basic math competence in order to graduate.
It’s not surprising that more kids graduated last year — they didn’t have to demonstrate that they knew anything. Increasing our graduation rates is important for Minnesota’s future, but it doesn’t do any good to students, families, businesses, communities — anyone — to graduate more kids who are less competent.
Along with many others, we are deeply concerned about the disparity in academic success between Minnesota’s white and nonwhite students. The Department of Education noted that graduation rates rose last year not just overall but also among minority groups. This is consistent with trends while the GRAD exams were in place: From 2008 to 2012, grad rates steadily increased for students of color. They were making progress, thanks to performance benchmarks. But now we don’t know if the achievement gap is shrinking due to student improvement or weaker graduation standards.
We need to graduate more high school students, but graduation has to mean something. Students need to be able to do more than walk across a stage on a spring night and receive a diploma — they need to be ready for higher education. Why? Because by 2020, 74 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some level of post-secondary education. Young people who are unqualified will be doomed to unemployment.
We opposed repealing exit exams because they helped to ensure that students were properly prepared for post-secondary education. Without exit exams, the state’s new “world’s best workforce” plan leaves it to teachers and school districts to determine if a student is on track and ready to graduate. This system is subjective and its success depends on having high-quality teachers. Unfortunately, our attempts to ensure that every classroom has an outstanding teacher have been rejected.
It can’t be left to our colleges and universities to get new students up to speed, because by the time they arrive on campus, it may be too late. According to a 2010 study, two out of every five students entering Minnesota public post-secondary institutions need remedial coursework. This is extremely expensive for both the students and the state. Nearly two-thirds of students needing remedial coursework fail to complete four-year programs within six years. Without the standards reinforced by exit exams, we’re likely to see a greater need for remedial coursework, a corresponding decline in post-secondary graduation rates and a shortage of qualified workers.
We look forward to working with policymakers to ensure that every child in Minnesota gets a world-class education. But to do that, we need reliable data that tell the whole story. We want every student to earn a high school diploma, but first we have to make sure they’re prepared to succeed.
Contact your legislators and urge them to reinstate the requirement that students demonstrate basic competence in reading, writing and math in order to earn a high school diploma.
Charlie Weaver is executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. William Blazar is senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.