Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Few would likely mourn an end to Minnesota’s high-school exit tests

The intent — to put pressure on public schools to try harder with struggling students — was laudable. But ultimately the tests are political mechanisms, not academic ones.

Pencils down: There's a chance the 2013 DFL-controlled Legislature will do away with tests that educators deem "fatally flawed."

In the spring of 2013 when the obituary is written, as seems likely, for Minnesota’s high-school graduation tests, it might read thusly:

Following nearly two decades of efforts to turn them into something other than a time-consuming annoyance, the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) tests today were euthanized by the DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature. Lawmakers made the decision after receiving a near-unanimous diagnosis [PDF] of “fatally flawed” from educators.

GRAD is mourned by the Minnesota Business Partnership, which faithfully held out hope that the tests might eventually guarantee the state’s employers that schools were producing work-force-ready graduates. The assessment experts who recommended the tests be put out to pasture hope the business group takes solace in their plan to implement more meaningful college- and career-readiness measures.

The so-called exit tests, which preceded the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law by a decade, will enter the annals of education policy as a misguided product of their time. The intent — to put pressure on public schools to try harder with struggling students — was laudable. But ultimately they are political mechanisms, not academic ones.

Article continues after advertisement

Created by the Legislature in 1992 as the Minnesota Basic Skills Tests in reading, writing and math, the exams were among the first to attach high stakes to student performance. The failure rate on the reading test was initially 55 percent. But in the early years they were administered in the eighth grade, so kids had four more years to up their game.

In the past, standardized tests had ranked kids by percentile. Requiring everyone to pass a proficiency test basically meant everyone had to be above average or the test had to get easier. After some tinkering, the reading and writing tests were easily passed by most students and lived lives of quiet irrelevancy.

A problem child early on

Math, however, was a problem child nearly from the start. In 2002, shortly after Gov. Tim Pawlenty was elected, the state adopted a more challenging math test and began administering it in the 11th grade. (Curious how challenging? Give MinnPost’s interactive version a try. We promise not to collect cookies or other information that would allow us to put names to embarrassing scores.)

In 2005, as NCLB’s separate testing regime kicked in, the Legislature replaced what had by then been rechristened the Basic Standards Test with the GRAD, which was then incorporated into the NCLB-mandated Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. Because the GRAD was supposed to gauge student proficiency and the MCAs a school’s success, the exam acquired something of a split personality.

In 2009, only 57 percent of 11th graders passed the math test, with far lower passing rates for minority students. To add insult to injury, there was no fixed definition of passage. Instead, after every student in the state had taken it, administrators would look at the answers to every question, make a judgment about how hard or easy it was and establish a “cut score” that would determine passage.

The following year, 2010, was to be the first where failing the test would cost a student a diploma, so the governor and Legislature enacted a five-year reprieve. During that time, students who passed the test or took it and failed three times would be granted diplomas.

Proposed solution was placed on shelf

Meanwhile, a state task force was asked to come up with a solution by the 2010 legislative session. It did come up with a proposal for a hybrid system it called the Achieving College and Career-readiness for Every Student’s Success (ACCESS) assessment [PDF], which was promptly placed on a shelf.

Minnesota wasn’t the only state struggling with exit testing. A year-old survey by the Center for Education Policy [PDF] found that 30 states either had or planned to have graduation assessments. Three more had abandoned the practice and a fourth was phasing it out. The fixes under consideration included making exit exams count toward a student’s final grade and giving the tests but not withholding diplomas.  

The CEP report further questioned the premise of the testing. Employers and colleges in only one state (Georgia) used the exams, and researchers were failing to find evidence that they increased college and career preparedness. At the same time, there was mounting evidence of the value of college-prep assessments designed to help students prepare for the ACT or SAT.

Article continues after advertisement

A final irony: Mustering an impressive math score on the ACT turns out to be significantly easier than passing the GRAD. Indeed a number of Minnesota colleges and universities accept lower scores for admission.

Passing the state test is equivalent to an ACT math score of 22, four points higher than a score many schools consider four-year college eligible. A fourth of students accepted to Minnesota four-year colleges had an ACT score of 18 or lower. And at least in Bloomington, where data guru Dave Heistad is executive director of research and assessment, 26 percent of 11th graders who scored that high on the ACT did not pass the GRAD [PowerPoint]. 

Dayton revived task force

Enter Gov. Mark Dayton, who said he would like to see Minnesota administer fewer tests and ensure that those that are given are of the variety that generates data teachers and students can use in real time to make sure student skills gaps are identified and plugged and the best teacher practices for doing so identified.

Dayton revived the task force — there are only so many people hereabouts who understand things like cut scores — and asked it to make recommendations for taming the hydra-headed standardized-test monster. On Dec. 1, the panel delivered a comprehensive set of recommendations that he and state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius will study for likely presentation to the Legislature.

The GRAD did not make the final cut. The details of its presumed internment have yet to be determined.