Progress with test results, but concerns

There’s “promising progress” in Minnesota’s just released elementary and middle school test results. However, would it be acceptable for 40 percent of Minnesota youngsters to not graduate from high school? The question arises since 42 percent of Minnesota’s high school juniors did not pass Minnesota’s soon-to-be-required math test, according to the Minnesota Department of Education’s spring report. Compare that 42-percent failure rate to only 8 percent of ninth-graders who did not pass Minnesota’s writing test currently required for graduation.
Last year’s juniors don’t have to pass that math test to graduate. But as Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius told me in an interview last week, under current law Minnesota students who want to graduate in spring 2015 will have to pass the test.
Minnesota students currently must do three things to graduate from high school. First, pass courses that give them 21.5 credits with each credit equivalent to a year-long class. Those credits come in English, math, social studies, science, art and physical education, plus elective courses. Second, students must pass any requirements their individual school districts may add. Third, students must pass statewide reading and writing tests. Students don’t have to pass the math test to graduate. But in three years, they will.
As with the reading and writing tests, students will have several chances to pass the math test, which they currently take for the first time in 11th grade. I asked the Commissioner if she thought significantly more students would pass the math test if it was required for graduation. She answered, “no.” We agreed that at least some would take it more seriously.
However, Cassellius believes there is a “fundamental flaw in the way we are using graduation tests.” She thinks we are “trying to do too much” with one test. “We have to decide how we want to hold schools accountable, how to make sure that students are prepared for college, and how to ensure that diplomas are meaningful.”
She has appointed a statewide, 34-member “Assessment and Accounting Working Group” to advise her department and the Legislature. The task force includes parents, teachers, principals, Republican and Democrat legislators, testing experts and business, union and community representatives.
This task force will consider Minnesota’s entire testing program, not just the assessments currently required and projected for use as part of the high school graduation plan. They also will review testing in grades 3-8. At those grade levels, the Commissioner noted, there is “promising progress” in both reading and math.
For more results, visit The department will release additional results later in August.
As we consider test results, Minnesotans must consider, what’s appropriate to require? When should we test students, and how? Graduation for thousands of Minnesota students may depend on our answers.

By Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome at