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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