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Associated Press, Published November 27 2012

Minn. task force recommends dropping grad exams

ST. PAUL — A state education task force voted Tuesday to urge the Legislature to dump graduation exams that high school students would have to pass in order to get a diploma.

The math, reading and writing exams would be required starting in 2015. But the task force favors replacing them with other tests designed to help students prepare for college or a job.

The Star Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/10QbwOL ) that business interests are likely to oppose the recommendation to drop the exams, known as GRAD tests, because they see them as a way to make sure students have met certain standards.

“We are going backwards from where we are currently in terms of expectations on what a high school diploma means,” said Amy Walstien, representing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Ending the exams as a graduation requirement would require approval from the state Legislature and governor.

Advocates for change argue that there's no evidence the exit exams — being conducted now under a grace period — are improving student achievement. They would instead use a set of national tests — such as those leading to the ACT— to identify where students need help attaining skills to thrive in a college or a career.

Passing the writing and reading exams has been relatively easy, but the failure rate on the math test has been much higher.

An analysis by the Minneapolis school district found that 31 percent of students across the state, or 19,000 total, are likely to fail the math GRAD test even after repeated tries.

Currently, students can take the test three times and get a waiver if they fail repeatedly. But the grace period goes away with this year's sophomore class.

Minnesota has had various forms of exit exams since the state debuted its basic skills tests in 1997. The Center on Educational Policy at George Washington University notes that 25 states have required exit exams, but four of them are on the verge of phasing them out.

Business and other groups that advocate for exit exams argue that many seniors are graduating without the skills needed for college or vocational success.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said too many students spend time and money on remedial college courses to master skills instead of focusing on a normal college curriculum. “That's a travesty,” he said.

David Heistad, research director in the Bloomington school district, said that Minnesota's passing standard on its math GRAD is higher than the standard for the ACT needed for admission for most four-year colleges in Minnesota. That means those who fail the test three times would be denied a diploma even if they met required college-entrance scores.

At the Capitol, there is openness to scaling back testing requirements, which were a focus of the task force review.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, favored less state testing when the issue came up during his campaign two years ago.

In 2009, the Legislature put the brakes on the math test-diploma link, instituting the waiver that expires in 2015. It was meant to buy decision-makers more time to fashion an alternate assessment.

Democratic Rep. Carlos Mariani, the incoming chair of the House Education Policy Committee and executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, said coming up with an alternative hasn't been easy.

“What we were wrestling with was that the pendulum had swung too far from the judgment of that teacher, and too far toward a single assessment,” he said. “We're trying to find a more intelligent way to do it, knowing that some students don't test well, which doesn't mean that they're not proficient.”

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Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com


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