More than 8,000 Minnesota high school seniors are in danger of not graduating this spring because they have not passed state tests that for the first time will be required for a diploma.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, 13 percent of seniors have yet to pass the reading test, which was first given to them in 10th grade, and 3 percent have yet to pass the writing test, which was first given to them in ninth grade.

The state did not break out percentages for individual schools or districts, but the Star Tribune obtained figures directly from some districts. They ranged from 28 percent of seniors who have not passed the reading test in Minneapolis to about 2 percent in Farmington.

"We have a fair number of kids who just keep putting it off," said Don Johnson, principal of Owatonna High School. "It's a mentality of, 'You're not really not going to graduate me, are you?' And the answer is, 'Yeah.'"

As spring approaches, that's expected to create tension between policymakers who have pressured schools to stop graduating students who may not be ready and families who don't believe their child's education should be derailed by one test.

"Some people are saying, 'Wait. Are we going to actually deny a kid a diploma, even if they have all their credits, 'cause they can't score well on a standardized test?'" said Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. "And you'll have other folks saying, 'You're not doing them a favor by passing them out of high school if they can't read or write.' ... And the research is not clear on which of those sides is right."

This year, for the first time, the St. Paul district plans to have another graduation ceremony at summer's end for students who aren't ready to graduate by June because they lack credits or haven't passed the tests.

St. Paul district spokesman Howie Padilla said that Superintendent Valeria Silva wanted people to still work on the graduation test. "Walking across a stage is a rite of passage for students," Padilla said.

'A tough test'

Until now, seniors have had to pass a series of "Basic Standards Tests" to graduate. Designed to measure basic proficiency, and they were first administered in eighth grade.

The new generation of tests, called the GRAD test -- Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma -- is designed to measure whether a student is prepared to succeed beyond high school.

Educators were relieved last spring when the Legislature threw out the requirement that students pass the GRAD math test, saying it was too hard. Now, students can graduate if they've passed the test once or failed it three times.

But no reprieve was granted for reading and writing, and the state doesn't have an appeals process for students who can't pass. Only students who have lived in the United States for less than four years and certain special education students are exempt.

Owatonna's Johnson, who is the president of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, said his school is working hard to make sure students and parents understand what is at stake.

The school is asking the 9 percent of the school's 400 or so seniors who have yet to pass the reading test to work with teachers in small groups to improve.

He said most of those students will meet the rest of their graduation requirements. To critics who say the school must not be teaching basic skills well enough, Johnson responds, "This is a tough test, and a fair number of adults in any community would have trouble passing it."

Many principals say high school teachers were never trained to teach reading because it was considered an elementary school subject.

The reading test questions are multiple choice. For the writing tests, students have to compose an essay. For example, they may be asked to write a detailed essay about their dream job.

Getting what they need

Minneapolis public school teachers are putting students who haven't passed in special classes and tutoring them after school and on weekends. They're also warning parents and eliciting their help.

"We've been sending home letters, we've done robo-calls, and we've talked to them at conferences," said Brenda Cassellius, associate superintendent. "They're also going to be getting their senior letters soon," which tell parents what seniors have left to do to graduate.

"I haven't heard from any parents who are starting to panic," she said, "but I bet my principals have."

State Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said he wishes the state would focus more on reducing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

"The fact that [these students] can't pass it is certainly worrisome," said Davnie, who is involved with education issues at the Legislature. "But the responsibility is on both sides of the test: It's on the kids to push themselves, and it's on the adults in this state to make sure that the students have what they need to be successful."

Students are allowed to take the tests every six weeks, as long as they do something, such as get tutoring, to improve in the interim. Most schools offer a couple more chances before the end of the school year.

"We're taking it very seriously," said Ben Kusch, principal of Farmington High School, where eight students still have to pass the reading test, "because we know there is a lot at stake."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460