Will Minnesota Eliminate Its High School Math Exam?

How effective of an assessment tool is a test that will result in failures for up to a third of the people who take it? That's the question now facing educators in Minnesota after experts voiced early predictions that up to 30% of high school students are at risk of failing the new high-stakes exit exam in mathematics.

At the moment, passing the new GRAD exam in reading and mathematics is required for high school graduation in Minnesota. Yet, in the case of the math portion of the exam, students who fail it three times can earn the right to graduate by meeting some additional requirements. This loophole is set to close in 2015, and many are wondering if high school graduation rates in Minnesota will tumble as a result.

This seems to be the conclusion of a panel of educators convened to discuss the looming problem. They are expected to recommend changes to the testing regime, although the final decision will rest with the Legislature.

Separate analysis of test results by both Bloomington and Minneapolis school districts concludes that substantial numbers of students would not be allowed to graduate. The Minneapolis analysis projects that 31 percent of students across the state, 19,000 total, are likely to fail the math GRAD test even after repeated retests. In Bloomington, about 31 percent of high school seniors haven't passed the math GRAD, but about one-fourth of that number is expected to pass during retesting.

Although Minnesota has been administering exit exams to high schoolers since 1997, the tests – including a basic skills test that was the first to be administered – didn't produce an accurate picture of graduates' knowledge. According to a 2011 study, nearly 40% of Minnesota high schoolers who enrolled in college after graduation required some form of remediation prior to taking up more advanced academic work — the problem that the new GRAD exams were supposed to solve.

But according to some experts, the GRAD exam solves this problem a little too well. Bloomington's research director David Heistad says that as designed, GRAD sets a higher standard than the ACT exam used by many universities to determine if students are qualified to enroll. Once the three-time-failure loophole is closed, it's conceivable that students who are college-ready according to the requirements set out by the colleges themselves will still not be able to actually graduate from high school.

In Minneapolis, administrators are urging the school board to go on record opposing the GRAD portion of state testing in favor of vocational and academic assessments leading to the ACT that tell students whether they're on track for their college or work goals. Heistad said he's been asked to present his findings to a group of metro-area principals.

"We should alert everybody that this has big implications," he said.

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