Debate over GRAD tests for a diploma heats up in St. Paul

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Testing anxiety is not limited to students.

The Democratic-led House and Senate are proposing to scrap the GRAD tests high school students must pass to earn a diploma. Instead, they want more college, career-oriented assessment — one free of “gotcha-yas” or “cut scores” — to make school testing a guide to the future rather than an  obstacle, they say.

The issue isn’t as dry as a test form.

It’s emotional.

Lawmakers, such as Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, spoke of their struggles in school, with Hall on the Senate floor talking of growing up in a home touched by alcohol abuse and challenges.

“When it came to schools, I suffered,” Hall said, saying he graduated from Roosevelt High School with a sixth-grade reading comprehension.


 Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, has spoken out of the House floor opposing the elimination of the GRAD test. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, has spoken out of the House floor opposing the elimination of the GRAD test. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

A former teacher and principal, Hall stressed the need for maintaining academic standards.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, Education Policy Committee Republican lead, speaks of dumbing down high school diplomas.

Emotions are strong in reformers, too.


Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the state’s current testing regimen is “cruel.”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton struck similar tones.

“Sending a third-grader home in tears thinking they failed life because they failed some test, it’s just the wrong way to get kids to want to learn, learn to learn, learn to love learning,” Dayton, a former teacher, said.

In coming to office he immediately directed Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to review testing policy, Dayton said.

One offshoot was a work group, composed of a number of area school officials, who issued a report in December.


Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, styled the state's current testing system in debate on the Senate floor. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, styled the state’s current testing system in debate on the Senate floor. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Citing such statistics that only 47 percent of college students complete course work within eight years, the work group deemed it “imperative” the state adopt a K-12 assessment model tied to college and career readiness.

Scrap the GRAD test in writing, reading and mathematics — a battery deemed unfair to people of color, low-income students, new English learners — and do not replace it with another “high-stakes” test, the group advised.

“I think there’s been a set of assumptions (about cut score testing), while widely held, are not accurate,” said Eden Prairie High School Principal Conn McCartan, who served on the work group.

McCartan, whose school district has a 97 percent graduation rate, is critical of the GRAD test for a number of reasons.

Besides questioning its motivational and career-development value, McCartan pointed to studies suggesting the test is thwarting adequately prepared students.

A study in the Bloomington School District matching student MCAII Math Test results against the ACT college readiness assessment concluded that about 15 percent of college eligible students would fail the GRAD test the first time.

Some would succeed on retries, but this would still leave about 45 families whose 12-grade student with ACT scores high enough to be accepted at a four-year college being denied a high school diploma based on the Math GRAD test.

The Eden Prairie School District has not conducted such a study, McCartan said, but he hears stories from students confirming the study results.

The proposal to scrap the GRAD test has drawn fire.

A Minnesota Business Partnership official who served on the assessment work group asked in a letter to Cassellius that the group report not be adopted.

While supporting a shift to the ACT and related exams because they offered means of establishing minimum expectations, the Partnership rejected the idea of jettisoning the GRAD.

“It’s a disaster,” Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver said of current legislation to do so.

Recently, a coalition of businesses, including the Partnership, launched an ad campaign opposing the perceived “dumbing down” of the high school diploma.

“This is not a high bar,” Weaver said of GRAD test thresholds.

But it’s working, he insisted.

Business groups point to recent gains in closing the state’s glaring achievement gap among minority students as evidence.

The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses recently launched a radio and TV campaign opposing the scrapping of the GRAD.

“I think legislators are getting calls (from the public),” Weaver said.

But educators are urging Democratic education leaders to stand fast with assessment work group recommendations.

A recent  memorandum from the Minnesota School Boards Association, the Association of School Administrators, and others endorsed group findings.

“The GRAD test, while well-intentioned, has outlived its usefulness. Although it led the way to some necessary changes, it now holds too many students back,” the memorandum reads.

Lawmakers are encouraged to reject any attempts at removing new assessment provisions from their bills.

Association of Metropolitan School District official Scott Croonquist, whose association represents the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Elk River and Farmingtron school districts, among others, said the association supports the work group recommendations.

Croonquist ascribes the controversy over elimination of the GRAD as stemming from misunderstanding over what a single test tells about students.

“We don’t agree that this is dumbing down diplomas,” Croonquist said.

Rather, it’s using multiple measures, existing standards, to better assess student achievement, chart directions.

Weaver is unconvinced.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Weaver suggested in cases of students failing GRAD tests, certificates, rather than regular high school diplomas, be issued.

The 2013 legislative session is entering its final weeks.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]

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