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Keep the integrity of Minnesota’s high-school diploma

Eliminating the GRAD test reduces a high-school diploma’s significance in Minnesota.

MARSHALL, Minn. — Apparently, it will be much easier to get a high-school diploma very soon since the GRAD Test as a requirement for high-school graduation seems to be heading for elimination based on the recommendations of the Department of Education Working Group.

GRAD questions are supposed to test students’ knowledge in certain core areas at about the 10th grade level, and doing well on them was one of the requirements for graduation. The problem appeared when it became clear that quite a few kids could not pass this test, especially the math portion of it. In response, the Minnesota Department of Education allowed schools to award high-school diplomas to kids who did not pass it, provided they tried several times, hoping that in time the situation will get better. Of course, knowledge of this exception eliminated all interest the kids may have had in studying hard for the tests, thus reducing passing rate even more.

When the situation did not improve, the Department of Education created a working group to find a solution to the problem, and that is when it got interesting.

The report of the Assessment and Accountability Working Group begins with the “Charge to the Working Group” section. It starts with setting the objectives in the following manner:

As a Working Group commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Education, we explored how Minnesota might redesign the state’s assessment and accountability system. … We ensured that the options considered were in alignment with the goals of Governor Mark Dayton and Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. Governor Dayton expressed a desire to reduce the amount of testing experienced by students. … Commissioner Cassellius envisions an assessment system that provides better and more meaningful results for educators, students and their families … .

As a person who immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union, I can’t help but notice that this sounds almost exactly the same as  Communist Party directives. All options had to be aligned with the Communist Party line and General Secretary Brezhnev’s desires. The language in the report is almost identical to what I used to read in newspapers daily and hoped to avoid by moving to America. Just like in that old Soviet reality, it seems that the main thing that really matters is the wishes of the government officials. So if Gov. Mark Dayton wants to reduce the amount of testing, it should be done regardless of whether that is good or bad. 

Sure enough, the group proposed to eliminate GRAD tests as a requirement for graduation. Here is its stated rationale:

“Minnesota cannot afford to continue an assessment misaligned with existing and future standards. While the research on the potential impact of high stakes graduation testing is not settled, a number of studies indicate that they have an overall negative impact, disproportionately borne by low-income students, students of color, and English Learners. The GRAD re-orients high schools and a significant portion of students toward the wrong outcome passing a state test. The GRAD requires an annual investment by the state for ongoing administration and imposes significant direct costs on districts and schools … “

Of course, all of the above doesn’t make any sense. If this assessment is misaligned with the standard, the reasonable solution would be to change the assessment — not to get rid of it. If the research on the graduation testing is not settled, why base recommendations on just the negative impact? If these tests disproportionately affect certain groups, measures should be taken to help these groups, including making students’ parents take greater responsibility for their kids’ school achievements rather than let them graduate without knowing how to solve a quadratic equation.

Passing any test should never be the goal; the skills and knowledge should be, and if kids have these, passing the test will be a breeze. And finally, all things imposed by the MDE cost money — that has never been a problem in the past.

The Department of Education often cites another reason for eliminating this graduation requirement: its comparison to the ACT scores. For example, a passing score on the math exam equates to a score of 19 on the math portion of the ACT, while many colleges only require an 18 to enroll. However, the only thing this comparison proves is that many state colleges have an ACT acceptance score that is too low. Statistics show that a lot of students have to take remedial courses in colleges and not being required to pass a meaningful graduation test is a clear reason for that: Kids are not ready for college regardless of their ACT scores.

It’s interesting to note that at the end the number of tests will not go down. The Working Group probably didn’t understand what the bosses wanted or the bosses told the group and the public different things. It is sad because reducing the number of tests is a good idea: They are not necessary for schools as a student evaluation tool since a good teacher knows what each of the students is capable of doing and making kids take tests that do not mean anything for them diminishes their willingness to pay attention to all tests.

The final result of this change is obvious:  The diploma’s significance will be reduced, undermining an employer’s trust and diminishing the overall level of education. Getting a high-school diploma without passing a minimum competency test is no different from becoming a doctor without passing all necessary tests: Anyone want to be treated by such a doctor?

What should and can be done?

It’s clear: Reduce the number of state mandated tests and create two paths to graduation with different diplomas: those bound and ready for college and those who are not, while allowing teachers to make a distinction. After all, this is how it is done in Finland – a country that is always brought up as an example of a great education system.

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minn. 


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Angermeyr on 05/11/2013 - 10:39 am.

    GRAD should be retired

    Ilya Gutman’s commentary drew a comparison between the charge to the MDE Assessment and Accountability Working Group and a Communist party directive. She may be in a better position than I to understand what that means, but as a member of the working group, I certainly do endorse the recommendation to drop the GRAD. What is forgotten in the debate about the merits of the GRAD (and its predecessor, the Basic Skills Tests or BST), is that there is no evidence that it ever accomplished anything. In more than 15 years of use, there has been no improvement in the graduation rate, little feedback from colleges or employers that they see a higher skilled graduate, scant data on the narrowing of the achievement gap, or reports that critics had dropped their constant denigration of public schools. It is time to retire this measure and replace it with one that can actually give students, teachers and parents information about a child’s future beyond K-12.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/11/2013 - 11:45 am.

    Why is the Finnish education system excellent ?

    Take a look at the link below “26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System” and you might be surprised at the comparisons with the U.S. It seems that many of the differences which weigh in favor of Finnish students are based on a simple set of values, not a system of theories, doctrine, or statistics.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/11/2013 - 01:54 pm.

    Perhaps Recent Immigrants from the Soviet Union

    As we see with other notable examples,…

    do not make the best evaluators or American society, economics, education, or birth certificates.

    As has already been said, the GRAD test did NOT accomplish the purposes for which it was designed.

    The math portion, which had not yet been fully implemented could probably not have been passed by the vast majority of adults in the state except those working daily in science and technology fields,…

    and even some of them, having specialized in particular areas, would likely not have passed such a broad-based math test.

    It almost certainly could not have been passed by those most determined to institute the GRAD standards in the first place.

    At this point, it seem quite clear that the punishment approach – you don’t graduate unless you do well enough on this standardized test – has NO effect on how kids do in school.

    It’s far more likely that a reward program – local, regional and state academic competitions, state recognition, scholarships, etc., for outstanding performers, all the things we do for kids who have some innate skill and talent in sports, would be far more effective at giving kids reasons to work harder in school.

    (As B.F. Skinner demonstrated – you can get rid of “bad” behavior with punishment, but you can only produce “good” behavior with rewards.)

    Of course kids from unstable, impoverished homes (or NO homes), where no one cares in the least or is even capable of noticing whether or not they’re getting to school let alone whether they’re getting homework done, creates a cultural gap in the Twin Cities Metro area,…

    one of the MOST segregated metros in the US,…

    that results in a learning gap which won’t be overcome until the challenges in the lives of those school-aged kids are met and remedied, something which no school system, nor any set of educational standards will be able to address.

    Let’s see the legislature address THAT problem: the kinds of extreme poverty in the inner city and many rural areas which leaves the kids growing up in it ill equipped for success in school or in life.

  4. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 05/11/2013 - 07:27 pm.

    High School

    We don’t need tests, we need parents who care.

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/12/2013 - 12:51 am.


    The US has some pretty ugly statistics that certainly hurt the success of American children including high child poverty rates (20%), high parental divorce rates (60%), and high incarceration rates.
    If children are just trying to survive school becomes secondary.

  6. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 05/12/2013 - 04:17 pm.

    I can agree with Ilya Gutman about one thing: We should “create two paths to graduation with different diplomas: those bound and ready for college and those who are not, while allowing teachers to make a distinction.” Yes, we should.

    But we must not do this in isolation. We must also remove the stigma that we have placed upon hard but necessary work, work that those of us with easier and better-paying jobs choose to pay extremely poorly, with no justification other than that we have the power to do so. Stated simply, it would do no good for us to send students to college to get Ph. Ds in tomato-picking if they completed their advanced degree, years later, only to be paid poorly as non-unionized migrant farm laborers. Yet this would be the outcome of our present folly, which is to pretend that with an inclusive and diverse enough education system – one that would ultimately offer an advanced degree for every kind of manual labor – we would somehow instantly overcome both the structural unfairness of our economy and the ideological bigotry that sustains it.

    I’ll let Wendell Berry have a word here, because he said it better than I ever could:

    ‘It seems likely, then, that what we now call racism came about as a justification of slavery after the fact, not as its cause. We decided that blacks were inferior in order to persuade ourselves that it was all right to enslave them. That this is true is suggested by our present treatment of other social groups to whom we assign the laborious jobs of caretaking. For it is not only the racial minorities who receive our indifference and contempt, but economic or geographic minorities as well. Anyone who has been called a “redneck” or “hillbilly” or “hick” or sometimes even “country person” or “farmer” shares with racial minorities the experience of a stigmatizing social prejudice. […] “Rednecks” and “hillbillies” and “hicks” are scorned because they do what used to be known as “n*gg*er work” – work that is fundamental and inescapable. And it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work. It is well established among us that you may hold up your head in polite society with a public lie in your mouth or other people’s money in your pocket or innocent blood on your hands, but not with dishwater on your hands or mud on your shoes.’

    From THE HIDDEN WOUND, Afterword to the 1988 edition (San Francisco: North Point Press), pages 112 to 113.

    Our education system suffers because we demand of it something that it cannot do: a ticket for everyone to escape from the need to do poorly paid work. But some of this poorly paid work is necessary work. We cannot solve this problem by creating a system of musical chairs, whereby the people with the lowest scores – however we calculate them makes no difference – always end up doing poorly-paid work, because of course, this work is necessary, and somebody has to do it. The solution is to pay decently for all necessary work and to treat all workers with respect. Unless we pursue this kind of economic and social justice outside of school walls, we will continue to expect our education system to accomplish the impossible, and we will continue to punish teachers and students alike for failing to achieve it.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/13/2013 - 07:34 pm.


    I appreciate all the comments my Commentary received. Let me try to respond.

    First, GRAD, as any graduation test requirement, is not supposed to achieve anything except for one simple thing: Prevent kids who are not ready to graduate from graduating. Designing a graduation test for anything other than that does not make sense. Of course, when it becomes clear that there are quite a few kids who are not ready to graduate, the government sees a problem. And, just like in the Soviet Union, the inconvenient indicator is being discarded.

    I referred to the Finnish education system because it is the one that is most frequently used as a perfect example that the American education system should strive to emulate. And the educators are the ones who do it. I personally think that conditions in Finland are so much different than in America that this comparison is unfair. However, we can always try to use good parts of any other approach.

    Preventing kids who are not ready from graduating is not a punishment. Otherwise, every bad grade may also be considered a punishment. Should everyone get an A? I also really hope that the majority of people, especially those with a college degree, are capable of passing a simple math test administered at the 9th or 10th grade level, albeit maybe after a one day refresher course. On the other hand, I am all for academic competitions, state recognition, scholarships, etc. but it has nothing to do with graduation tests because those things have absolutely different objectives. Also, I was positive that different experience and diversity are highly valued in America. Apparently, for some people, it applies only to those who agree with them. And, by the way there are no recent immigrants from the Soviet Union because it was dissolved more than 20 years ago.

    And finally, I fully agree that we need parents who care (and some discipline in schools) to achieve anything and that some kids are struggling but, again, this is a different matter. After all, people should not become doctors, engineers, teachers, and, yes, high school graduates if they did not earn it by passing the required tests. Kids who can’t pass a simple early high school level test are not ready for graduation and should not be given a diploma.

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