Different standards may have increased Minnesota’s high school graduation rate

Nathan-on-Education-newMinnesota’s Department of Education (MDE) recently made a major announcement about high school graduation rates increasing that left out something important.

MDE materials distributed for the announcement did not mention that there was a major change in the high school graduation requirements between 2012 and 2013.

Students hoping to graduate in spring 2012 were required to pass statewide reading and writing tests (called GRAD tests), but in 2013, that was no longer required. Instead, they were required to take one of several tests – such as the ACT, a test for the military or the Accuplacer, used for many two-year colleges – but they were not required to score at any particular level.

On Feb. 19, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said in a press release that Minnesota’s high school graduation rate increased overall by 1.93 percent from 2012 to 2013. She believes this was “the result of targeted investments by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature, as well as greater accountability for schools through our waiver, and the incredible work being done each and every day by Minnesota’s educators.”

As I talked with more than 20 district and charter school leaders, legislators and community officials, a number of them cited the change in state requirements as one of the reasons for increased graduation rates.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Minnesota House Education Policy Committee, wrote via email: “I don’t think we can say definitively … that eliminating the high stakes has led to increases in graduation rates, but I think it is plausible to say that it may have contributed to increases. I’m told that repeal of the GRAD in (one district) alone resulted in an additional 187 ELL (English language learners program) students to graduate. I think that is good because it means that 187 students are able to continue with their dreams in jobs or post-secondary. Remember, they still have to pass their courses, show up to school, etc. in order to graduate.”

But Jim Bartholomew, education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, told me: “It would be groundbreaking news if the graduation rate did ‘not’ increase – the state eliminated its basic skills expectations in reading, writing and math. We may be misleading graduates, their families and the broader community into thinking graduates have the skills they need to succeed in colleges and the work world.”

Kate Maguire, superintendent of District 279 (Osseo Area), told me via email: “We had more than 20 students who graduated because of the new requirements. We think that the alternative pathways most benefited the English language learners.”

Barbara Murphy, testing coordinator at High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, agreed with Maguire. Murphy wrote that the new requirements did not have an impact on graduation of students who already had passed the tests. But for some potential graduates who had not yet passed the tests, “this positively affected graduation rates for June 2013.”

At a press conference Feb. 19, Commissioner Cassellius, when asked, said she did not know how many districts graduated students who had  not  yet  passed  the tests

but then graduated because of changes         in          requirements.

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Little Falls High School Principal Tim Bjorge told me that the new requirements did not have an impact there, but that, “I’m sure they had an impact in some places around the state.”

George Weber, Pierz area superintendent, wrote: “The change will have minimal impact on our graduation rates. It is a positive change to the extent that the tests were not well correlated to specific work readiness skills or college and vocational readiness skills.

“It is very likely that the lifting of the MCA grad mandate opened up the opportunity for schools to be more targeted and individualized with all their seniors in such a manner where they were provided an opportunity to spend their school time on the courses that will provide those seniors the necessary workplace and post-secondary skills, and therefore increase the number of students motivated to graduate,” Weber said.

It seems to me that, in describing recent increases in graduation rates, state officials should acknowledge that requirements were changed.

It’s too early to know if this was a good or bad change. Improving graduation rates is a good thing if it means more students are well prepared for their next steps, but we don’t know how many are or aren’t.

We do know that part of the reason more students graduated is because Minnesota changed its rules on what students have to do to graduate.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, [email protected]