With nearly a third of high school students at risk of failing Minnesota's high-stakes exit exam for math, some educators say it's time the state dropped the requirement.

On Tuesday a panel of educators is expected to recommend changes in the state's school-testing regimen. Dropping the exit exams would require action by the Legislature.

Minnesota students now must pass the GRAD test in reading to earn a high school diploma. Students also take a GRAD math test, but if they fail three times, they're allowed to graduate if they meet other graduation requirements. That grace period ends in 2015, meaning this year's sophomores will be denied diplomas in 2015 if they don't pass.

Separate analysis of test results by both Bloomington and Minneapolis school districts concludes that substantial numbers of students would not be allowed to graduate. The Minneapolis analysis projects that 31 percent of students across the state, 19,000 total, are likely to fail the math GRAD test even after repeated retests.

In Bloomington, about 31 percent of high school seniors haven't passed the math GRAD, but about one-fourth of that number is expected to pass during retesting.

"You still have a ton of kids who would end up not graduating," said David Heistad, Bloomington's research director.

Debate over exit exams

Exit exams have been part of Minnesota's graduation scheme since the bygone basic skills test debuted in 1997.

They have been pushed by business and other groups who argue that many seniors are graduating without the skills needed for college or vocational success.

Such exams were mandated in 25 states last school year, covering almost 70 percent of students nationally, according to a review released in September by the Center on Educational Policy at George Washington University. It also found that four of those states are phasing out the exams.

Some 40 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2008 and attended a Minnesota public university within two years needed remedial courses, according to a 2011 study. Those students spend time and money catching up, rather than focusing on the normal curriculum, and are less likely to graduate from college, said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership and a member of the assessment group. "That's a travesty," he said.

But on the flip side of that argument is research by Heistad that found the passing standard for the math GRAD is higher than the standard for the ACT needed for admission for most four-year colleges in Minnesota. Failing the test three times would deny a diploma to a student who have met required college-entrance scores.

The task force has been meeting since June for a broad review of potential changes in the state's school-testing practices, including the GRAD tests, elementary and middle school tests and standards that would align schools with requirements of colleges and employers. Gov. Mark Dayton favored less state testing in his campaign.

'This has big implications'

In Minneapolis, administrators are urging the school board to go on record opposing the GRAD portion of state testing in favor of vocational and academic assessments leading to the ACT that tell students whether they're on track for their college or work goals. Heistad said he's been asked to present his findings to a group of metro-area principals.

"We should alert everybody that this has big implications," he said.

In 2009, the Legislature waived until 2015 the no-graduation hammer behind the math GRAD, in order to find ways to do alternate assessments of students. But a legislative attempt to find those alternatives ended in political deadlock, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, the incoming chair of the House Education Policy Committee and executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. One proposal at the time would have allowed a teacher's assessment of a student's skills to clear the way for graduation for students who fell short on the tests.

"What we were wrestling with was that the pendulum had swung too far from the judgment of that teacher, and too far toward a single assessment," he said. The search for an alternative continues, he said. "We're trying to find a more intelligent way to do it, knowing that some students don't test well, which doesn't mean that they're not proficient."

Bartholomew said whatever testing standard is used for graduation needs to give students an early indication of how they are measuring up to college expectations and require that they pass a high enough standard that they can make an academic transition to college without remedial work.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib