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ThreeSixty Journalism: Heads up: Minnesota juniors must pass new MCA-II test in April to graduate

THREESIXTY JOURNALISM

“I guessed on every single one,” said Osseo High School senior Andrew Scheffler when asked about how seriously he took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments test last year. This is because he knew it didn’t count toward his graduation.

This year, however, the tables have turned. Starting this April, all high school juniors in Minnesota will be required to pass a new statewide math test. If they don’t, they’ll be allowed to keep trying during their senior year. But if they don’t succeed, they won’t be able to graduate.

“We’ve got tens of thousands of Minnesotans who aren’t likely to graduate if we don’t make some changes,” said state Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Democrat from Maplewood who is the deputy chair of the Senate Education Committee. This week, Wiger introduced a bill in the state legislature that would give students who fail the new GRAD math test another route to graduation.

Even though they took the GRAD reading test as freshmen and writing test as sophomores, many juniors are unaware of this substantial test.

“What test? I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Osseo junior Laura Neary. “I had no idea there is going to be a new graduation test.”

The rules have changed big-time for students like Neary. In past years, Minnesota students were required to pass the Basic Skills Test in order to graduate from high school. They also took a separate test — the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments — that help districts measure student progress and meet the requirements set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Most students could pass the BST with 8th-grade math skills. But employers and state officials want more from students, so the new GRAD test assesses whether the student can be successful in college math. This test is much harder than the BST test and students will need 10th or 11th grade math skills to pass, education officials say.

This spring, students will take a combined test — the MCA-II — that measures their own performance and the districts. The test will have 70 questions total, but 40 of them will be the GRAD test, which students have to pass to graduate.

Education officials and legislators like Wiger are debating whether or not the GRAD math standard in unreasonably high.

“An Algebra 1 student cannot be proficient on this test,” said Don Pascoe, director of research, assessment, and accountability for Osseo Area Schools District 279. He believes the standard for passing has been set too high by the state Legislature and commissioner of education. “If they leave the law as it is, we run the risk of having up to half of the seniors in a situation where they have not passed the test needed for graduation.”

Wiger got worried at a legislative committee hearing in December. The Department of Education said most students showed proficiency in reading and writing but the signs were that the majority wouldn’t pass the new math test. “We were told that at best the passing rate would be 40 percent,” Wiger said.

Want to test your math skills? Here’s a link (PDF) to some sample GRAD test questions.

Want to tell Sen. Wiger what you think the state should do about the new GRAD math test? Contact him at: sen.chuck.wiger@senate.mn

Even school officials from Edina, a high-performing school district, asked for flexibility on the test, he said.

If Wiger’s bill is approved in the Minnesota House and Senate and is signed by the governor, it would allow students who fail the GRAD math test to graduate anyway provided they pass all required courses and credits, take whatever math remediation the district offers and retake the math test at least twice.

In a statement, Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said it is too early to speculate how students will do on the new, high-stakes test coming up in April.

“The Department of Education continues to meet with (the Minnesota) Legislature to discuss the Math GRAD test,” she said in the statement. “Regardless of the discussions, students will be expected to meet basic requirements for graduation so they are prepared for careers and post-secondary education.”

Seagren will decide in May exactly what score will be required to get a passing grade on the GRAD math test.

Since the test is so high-stakes, Pascoe said District 279 is doing all it can to prepare students for the test. “We will be doing a variety of things,” said Pascoe. One thing they will be doing prior to the test is encouraging students to take tougher courses, especially math courses. Also, there will be several after-school programs as well as summer programs to help ready the students for this “brain-buster.”

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