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

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.

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.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 12/06/2012 - 10:07 am.

    “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.”

    Uh that seems like pretty good proof that higher education is in a bubble.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/06/2012 - 10:11 am.

    Just looked at the sample test…

    It’s ridiculous. No wonder it’s failing so many students, Who uses algebra to fill bird feeders or makes a graph to measure the amount of money in their savings account? These aren’t even rational math approaches to these problems.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/06/2012 - 01:12 pm.

      Stuck on the subject

      Perhaps you don’t fill bird feeders that way, but lots of people use graphs to measure and predict money in accounts. I actually thought that many of the problems were put into reasonable context. Of course, some were definitely a stretch. Ever wonder where the housing bubble came from? It wasn’t just greedy and foolish banks. There were lots and lots of people who couldn’t reasonably predict how their finances would be affected by balloon mortgages. Using graphs to predict income and savings is very, very basic. Even with online banking and all the tools they provide. I calculate my fuel economy by hand. I use spreadsheets to check on my finances and use graphs to identify patterns (even a supposedly successful bank like Wells Fargo simply can’t get their “Money Map” right). I used to use fractions to calculate how much food to leave my cats over the weekend if I was gone (until I got an automatic feeder, and then I had to use fractions to calculate the amount of food it should dispense for 2 cats 3 times a day). I calculate rough prices for sale products all the time in my head to determine whether the price has met a threshold below which I’m willing to purchase a product. I’m no super-genius, though. These are things that help to keep my life from falling down around my ears. In some cases, I’m certain, the lack of these skills not only prevent some people from ever getting ahead, but also lead them right into poverty.

  3. Submitted by jean fid on 12/06/2012 - 04:44 pm.

    It ain’t easy

    I took the time to answer 6 questions and got two wrong before I quit =)

    My daughter is a senior this year. She is one of less than half who passed, and she’s a student who works hard for B’s and C’s. She couldn’t have done it without a tutor that’s for sure. She’s been tutored for math since 5th grade because the classrooms are so full.

    She also got a 24 on her ACT.

    Many parents were upset when the students received word this fall that they hadn’t passed the test (they take the test in 11th grade). Students have an opportunity to retest before graduation, but of those retesting this year, more than half did not pass.

    I agree with Rachel. I see the application for many things in the test, and I think much (not all) is in good context with the real world. However, I question whether or not this is a test that requires preparation. Not many can get through this without one on one help from a teacher.

    Which leads to the problem of teaching to standards…

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2012 - 01:20 pm.

    I think Rachel is obviously a math geek.

    I’m not trying to get personal or insult anyone, I’m just making an observation. I’m willing to bet that fewer than 10% of bank customers even know they can generate graphs with their online banking tools let alone complain about graph’s precision. Even my wife doesn’t use graphs to track her bank accounts and she’s an epidemiologist. We both use spread sheets. Again, I’m not trying to make this about one person I’m just saying that you can’t design graduation requirements as if everyone is a math geek. Yes, you have to be able to work with basic fractions and ratios on occasion, but you don’t need to calculate anything in order to scoop 1/2 cup of dog food out of a box.

    Almost none of these questions address real world scenarios. It’s silly and inefficient to produce a bar graph for instance in order to predict the future cost of t-shirts. It would be simpler and more precise to average costs over the course of a few years, no graph is necessary. When was the last you calculated the square footage of a room and then forgot the dimensions? The mean, median, and mode question is deliberately tricky. Many people who understand what a mean, median, and mode are, will get that question wrong simply because it’s tricky. Tricky questions may be “fun” for some people, but don’t use them to test basic competency. A straight forward question would simply provide the numbers and ask for a calculation of the mean, median, and mode.

    Look, the goal here is to graduate 100% of our k-12 students from high school. The amount of instructions and resources that would be required to get 100% our students into a math proficiency capable of getting 80% of these questions correct would be massive and ultimately unnecessary since this level of proficiency is simply not necessary for most adults.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach this stuff, but a math competency test for adulthood in our society should look very different from this. I think for instance it more important to recognize when a graph has been distorted to shape the results than it is to use one to figure out where your driveway is going to go.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/07/2012 - 04:43 pm.

      No offense taken

      Even if I was a math geek (I’m a science geek, but not a math geek), that wouldn’t change the fact that the test may have flaws, and they may even be overall fatal, BUT it’s not out of line to have a high bar for high school graduation. The goal is not just to graduate 100% of high school students, but to graduate high school students with an amount of general knowledge that will provide them with the ability to succeed. And by succeed, I don’t mean simply survive.

      Personally, I think the goal of graduating 100% of students no matter what is a goal worth failing if all it does is churn out kids who gained nothing more than the ability to add and subtract for a whole lot of taxpayer money. If we must find an alternative for the 20% of students who will never pass this test, fine. But I don’t think we should drop the bar for those who have the potential of passing it. Minnesota’s got high standards–but then, Minnesota consistently has a higher graduation rate, higher ACT average, and higher SAT average than much of the rest of the nation.

      In addition, I don’t really care if you or anyone else don’t think “trick questions” are fun. The point of trick questions is to make a person apply more than just the basic knowledge to a problem. If you have not learned critical thinking, trick questions will trip you up almost every time. If you have, they will occasionally sneak past you, but you’re more likely to be able to solve them correctly. One of the biggest differences between people who have been educated in the US and people who have been educated elsewhere in the world (especially Asian countries) is the ability to think beyond a problem. Creativity. Critical thinking. Inventiveness. Students educated in the Asian tradition will almost inevitably be able to answer a straight forward question correctly more often and more quickly than an American student. But given a tricky question, an American student is more likely to be able to solve the problem at hand.

      Sure, we can simply test our students at a level that gets them churned out of high school. But then, what’s the benefit? There is definitely a correlation between level of education and unemployment and income. But I imagine that it’s hard to tease out whether someone who happens to both be unemployed and without a high school diploma is unemployed because of the lack of a diploma or is unemployed because he doesn’t have the skills that an employer needs.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/08/2012 - 01:09 am.

    See, this is the problem…

    No one said the only goal was to just get everyone out of high school, obviously we want standards that are meaningful. The math on this is quite simple: 40% of the students taking this test failed. That means that if you required that 100% of the students pass this test you would deny graduation to 40% of the students after 12 years of education simply because they failed this one test. In 2012 77% of Minnesota’s high school students earned their degrees on time. If you required this level of math proficiency we would be awarding high school diplomas to less than half our students who’d actually completed 12 years of education. Do you really want to do that?

    It’s not about lowering the requirements so students get diplomas, it’s about having appropriate requirements. Math expertise for 100% of our graduating high school students is simply not an appropriate requirement. We’re talking about a normal population here. Expertise of any kind will distribute on one tail or the other of a bell curve, you’re never going to have an entire population of math experts. And I know it’s hard for some people to believe, but the world wouldn’t necessarily be a better place if we were all math experts.

    I understand the reason for word problems and difficult math questions. I also understand that math is just one of many subjects in a persons education and it’s not the only nor the best way to reach creativity, critical thinking, or inventiveness to every person.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2012 - 10:26 am.

    Just one more observation about math in general

    It’s been suggested in a few comments here an in related articles that math teaches creativity and critical thought. I would actually suggest the opposite. Math is one of the most pedantic of all human intellectual practices. For instance in cases like the mean, median, and mode question, people who understand the math will get the question wrong not because they’re not creative, but rather because they fail to be pedantic enough. Math is purely rule driven, if you don’t follow rules you can’t get it right, and there are very few exceptions. Tricky math questions aren’t about teaching creativity they’re about seeing if you can follow the rules. In most cases when you get tricky math questions wrong it’s because you failed to follow ALL of the rules, not because you failed to think critically or creatively. Frankly, this is why different subjects are appealing to different people. Pedantic subjects appeal to some personalities more than others.

    I’m not making any judgements, I’m just making an observation.

    Now I’m not saying math is stupid, or silly or a waste of time. I’m just saying we need to balance math requirements appropriately without attributing disproportionate intellectual qualities to math expertise. I think we want to produce well rounded intellects that are creative, critical, and capable of applying rules when needed. Any math requirements we design for high school diplomas should reflect those priorities. We also can’t ignore the diversity of personalities and intellects that comprise our student population and our adults population.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/12/2012 - 11:10 am.

    Interesting comments….

    I also ‘failed’ the math test. When I went through high school in the 50’s, math was not a high priority subject, and consequently many of us took the’ easy math’ on our road to high school graduation. Many times since then I had wished that I would have been required to take challenging math course while I was in high school.

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