Several thousand Minnesota high school seniors might not graduate this spring because they haven't passed new state tests.
The Minnesota Department of Education released figures Tuesday showing that about 1,800 seniors have yet to pass the writing test, and about 5,000 seniors have yet to pass the reading test. Passing both became a requirement this year for the first time.
Students can retake the tests after waiting six weeks -- into the summer or fall if necessary. But for hundreds -- or even thousands -- of those who have yet to pass, time has run out for them to fulfill the requirement in time to get a diploma with their classmates.
"We know we'll have kids [for whom] this is all they need to graduate," said Mary Berrie, executive director of alternative and extended learning programs for the Minneapolis public schools. "Some are kids who are already accepted into colleges in the fall."
Until this year, seniors have had to pass a series of "Basic Skills Tests" to graduate, and hundreds failed to do so every year. They were designed to measure basic proficiency and were first given in eighth grade. The new tests, called GRAD tests -- Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma -- measure higher proficiency and are given in high school.
The state won't know until December whether the percentage of students who don't graduate only because of required state tests has increased with the new tests, said Dirk Mattson, director of assessment and testing for the Education Department. Some of those students also may have other problems, such as a failed class, that would prevent them from graduating.
"But I guess one would say that if you increase the rigor, one might expect to see some kind of increase in" students not graduating, he said. The failure rate for this year's seniors will likely drop as they retake the tests this summer and even this fall.
Other results released Tuesday show that 78 percent of the state's 10th-graders passed the GRAD reading test this spring, the same as last year. Ninety percent of ninth-graders passed the writing test this spring, up from 89 percent last year.
When students take the reading and math GRAD tests for the first time, they are part of another state standardized test -- the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments-II (MCA-II) -- that measures how schools are doing in educating different groups of students.
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 that 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 certain special education students and students who have lived in the United States less than four years are exempt.
Rates will jump
A sampling of districts and schools supports the notion that the graduation test failure rate among seniors will jump this year.
For instance, Johnna Rohmer-Hirt, director of research, evaluation and testing for Anoka-Hennepin schools, estimates that 140 to 150 district seniors won't pass the writing or reading tests or both this year. That compares to "about 70 to 75 students last year (who) wouldn't have passed the Basic Skills Tests," Rohmer-Hirt said.
It's not known yet how many of those 140 to 150 students wouldn't have graduated anyway because they flunked classes and didn't have enough credits.
"What I feel comfortable saying is we will have more students this year not graduating because of the more stringent performance level (of the tests) required for graduation," she said. Had the Legislature not softened the math requirement, she said, "it would be a whole different ballgame -- we would be looking at 800 students not passing, which is 27 percent of our (seniors)."
Richfield High School Principal Jill Johnson said she thinks the passing rate of her seniors mirrors the state rate. She estimated that 10 or 12 of the school's seniors won't pass by graduation, compared to four or five who might not have passed the old high-stakes Basic Skills Tests.
Johnson said students who don't pass the GRAD tests can go through graduation but can't get a diploma. Some could qualify for a diploma when they retest in the summer or fall. Johnson said that last year, three or four of the students denied diplomas retested in September, and at least two passed.
The state schedules retakes early in every month, but students who fail must wait six weeks before retaking.
One problem hasn't changed since the Basic Skills Tests era: Even if students made straight A's and got admitted to college, failing a GRAD test can wreck their plans.
"We had, for instance, a student who had a significant scholarship but was unable to attend college because she hadn't passed the math portion of the Basic Skills Tests," Rohmer-Hirt said. "Many kids can't access college because they don't have that diploma."
The state also released some results Tuesday for the reading and math MCA-II tests -- the ones that measure how well schools are doing. In both subjects, performance statewide increased 1 percentage point. Seventy-five percent of 10th-graders were proficient on the reading test, and 43 percent were proficient on the math test.
In both subjects, the state's large achievement gap appeared to narrow slightly; many groups of students of color and students learning English improved at a slightly faster rate than white students.
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High school seniors who haven't passed the required reading and writing tests will have to retake them this summer -- and even this fall -- to graduate.