Progress; but big questions about Minnesota’s High School Math Test are cause for review

There’s “promising progress” in Minnesota’s just released elementary and middle school test results. However, would it be acceptable for about 40 percent of Minnesota youngsters not to graduate from high school? The question arises since 42 percent of Minnesota’s high school juniors did not pass Minnesota’s soon to be required math test. That was part of Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) new report about spring, 2012.

Compare that 42 percent failure rate to only 8 percent of ninth graders who did not pass Minnesota’s writing test currently required for graduation.

Last year’s juniors don’t have to pass that math test to graduate. But as Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius told me in an interview last week, under current law Minnesota students who want to graduate in spring 2015 will have to pass this math test to graduate.

Here are area passage rates (rounded to the nearest percent) for 11th graders, recalling that the statewide average was 58 percent: Little Falls, 51 percent, Pierz, 53 percent, Swanville, 58 percent and Upsala, 57 percent.

The 10 high schools with the highest percentage of students passing included suburban, rural and urban district and charter public schools: Eagle Ridge Charter (Eden Prairie), 93 percent, Kittson Central, 92 percent, Math and Science Academy Charter (Woodbury) and Nova Academy charter (St. Paul), 86 percent, Edina, 85 percent, Kasson-Mantorville and Mounds View, 84 percent, Minnetonka, 83 percent, Eagan and Orono, 82 percent.

Minnesota students currently must do three things to graduate from high school. First, pass courses that give them 21.5 credits with each credit equivalent to a one year long class. Those credits are in English, Math, social studies, science, art and physical education, plus courses students select. Second, students must pass any requirements that school districts add. Third, students must pass statewide reading and writing tests. Students don’t have to pass the math test to graduate. But in three years, they will.

As with the reading and writing tests, students will have several chances to pass the math test, which they currently take for the first time in the 11th grade. I asked the Commissioner if she thought significantly more students would pass the math test it was required for graduation? She answered, “no.” We agreed that at least some would take it more seriously.

However, Cassellius believes that there is a “fundamental flaw in the way we are using graduation tests.” She thinks we are “trying to do too much” with one test. “We have to decide how we want to hold schools accountable, how to make sure that students are prepared for college and how to insure that diplomas are meaningful.”

She has appointed a statewide, 34-member “Assessment and Accounting Working Group” to provide her, and the legislature with advice. The task force includes parents, teachers, principals, legislators, testing experts and representatives of business and community groups.

This task force will consider Minnesota’s entire testing program, not just the assessments currently required and projected for use as part of the high school graduation. They also will review testing in grades 3-8. At those grades, as the Commissioner noted, there is “promising progress” in both reading and math.

For more results, see the MDE Web site, education.state.mn.us. The department will be releasing additional results later in August.

As we consider test results, Minnesotans must consider what’s appropriate to require? When should we test students, and how? Graduation for thousands of Minnesota students may depend on our answers.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome via e-mail at jnathan@centerforschoolchange.org.

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