Minnesota Legislature considers replacing graduation tests
Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, March 13, 2013 – A bill that would axe Minnesota’s high-stakes graduation exams and replace them with tests designed to gauge whether students are ready for college or the workforce is making its way through the Legislature.
Instead, students would start taking a series of college entrance exams in eighth grade to identify if they have the skills to succeed in a postsecondary program or on the job.
But students wouldn’t have to attain a specific score on those tests before they get a diploma, a huge sticking point for business leaders and Republican lawmakers.
“Most of us would agree that we need to do some reform of testing to make it more meaningful. But the idea that we get rid of benchmarks and cutoff scores … it’s baffling,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “What happens if you don’t have a goal to shoot for?”
But Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, a co-sponser of the bill, said a group of mostly educators voted 26-2 in November to drop the high-stakes tests and he will resist any efforts to require passing scores on the exams to get a diploma.
“We don’t think benchmarks … are always a good indicator of career and college readiness,” Dahle said.
Under current law, Minnesota students first take the writing test in ninth grade, reading in 10th grade and math in 11th grade.
This will be the fourth year that students have had to pass the reading and writing exams in order to graduate. That hasn’t been a problem for most students — 80 percent passed the reading test on their first try and 92 percent passed the writing exam on their first try.
Dave Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for Bloomington schools, said the graduation tests, particularly reading and writing, have outlived their usefulness.
When the state started giving the exams 15 years ago, a minimum benchmark was needed because there were students who obtained diplomas who didn’t know how to read.
Math is a different story.
About 58 percent of students pass the math test on the first try, but educators and state officials agree that is bar is too high.
For now, Minnesota students can fail the math test and still graduate, as long as they retake it twice, pass their courses and meet other graduation requirements.
Heistad said that if students were required to pass the math test, he estimates Minnesota’s graduation rate would plummet at least 15 percent. It was at 78 percent last year.
And he said he doesn’t believe someone needs to master advanced algebra to succeed at most technical colleges and even four-year universities.
“It’s good to have a high standard. But the math test cut score is way too high for a minimal requirement,” Heistad said. “And I don’t think that should be a reason to hold some kids back in high school.”
Proponents of the change also say the graduation tests fail to identify early on what skills students lack. The change would have students taking precollege entrance exams, starting in eighth-grade to see if their reading, writing, math and science skills are on track for what they want to do after high school.
“It involves students in the planning process,” said Rick Spicuzza, deputy superintendent for Mounds View Public Schools. “What are you planning to do? Here’s how you are performing and where you need to be.”
Business groups and Republicans like the idea of reformatting the tests and aligning them with college-entrance exams, such as the ACT. But students should still have a minimum bar they need to meet before graduating, said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership.
“Students should feel confident that if they get a high school diploma, it means something,” Bartholomew said. “And it means then can succeed in college or on the job.”
And when more states are moving toward increased accountability, it doesn’t make sense for Minnesota to back off, he said.
A study by the Center on Education Policy found 25 states enrolling 69 percent of the country’s K-12 student population make exit exams a graduation requirement. That’s up from 2003, when 19 states representing 52 percent of enrollment had such exams.
Bartholomew also pointed out that Minnesota’s graduation tests in reading and writing show that students of color are making big gains on the exam.
From 2008, the gap between white students and their black peers closed by at least 10-percentage points on both tests.
But in math, scores have remained virtually stagnant for all student groups since 2009.
“The one test we don’t expect students to pass is the one test we’re not seeing any improvement,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge. “That’s the travesty of low expectations. If that’s not a compelling argument I don’t know what is.”
“It quite literally gets rid of all standards for graduation for students. They don’t even pretend that it doesn’t,” he said. “Then what is the criteria for graduating? You just have to put in seat time?”
Spicuzza disagreed that it waters down expectations for students. College-entrance exams that have real-life ramifications are a bigger motivator for students than the “artificial incentives and obstacles” of defined cut scores to graduate.