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MN2020 - Serious Concerns Voiced About GRAD Tests
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Serious Concerns Voiced About GRAD Tests

November 19, 2008 By John Fitzgerald

Fearing a difficult surprise for many parents and students, education experts are taking their concerns about the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma process (testing required to graduate high school) to the Capitol; hoping state policymakers will correct the flaws they see in the plan.

The three GRADs go into effect for students graduating in 2010. The tests include a writing test given in 9th grade, a reading test in 10th grade and a math test in 11th grade. The tests are embedded in the MCA II tests and replace the Basic Skills Tests, the previous high school graduation test. All public and charter schools administer the tests.

Students who don't pass the tests can take remedial courses and try them later, but ultimately the stakes of the tests are high: no passing grade, no diploma.

Educators see many flaws in this procedure and with the class of 2010, only three semesters away from graduation; the time to fix the problems is now.

The West Metro Teaching and Learning Directors Network - composed of curriculum directors in districts such as Edina, Wayzata and Hopkins - have written a white paper on GRAD to present to lawmakers at this year's Legislative session.

In it, they point out that what constitutes a passing score on the math test has not yet been announced by the state Department of Education.

They also note that students take the math test at the end of their junior year, leaving only one year for remediation. "We find it contrary to best practice to believe that a student who has not reached a proficiency in mathematics after eleven years of instruction is able to become proficient in the short window of time," they wrote. Also, under the BST which students were fist given in 8th grade, students had many years to receive additional instruction.  This is no longer the case.

They also wrote that graduation will be determined by a student's score on one test. A single measure of competency is not considered best practice by assessment experts. In addition, they argue that students will be denied a high school diploma although they have met Minnesota Academic Standards. 

Embedding GRAD into the MCA II tests is a faulty idea, they wrote. The MCA IIs are at a greater level of difficulty than GRAD. Embedding GRAD into the MCA II tests is discouraging, intimidating and sets students up to fail.

These elements will have a disproportionate impact on certain populations of Minnesota students, including those living in poverty, English Language Learners, and students of color, they wrote.

Finally, GRAD implementation will generate additional costs. "Will the legislature provide for these costs or will they be borne by the local taxpayers?  The concept of an unfunded mandate is an even deeper concern for school districts, students and taxpayers when the achievement of a diploma hangs in balance," they wrote.

The educators say answers must be found soon, given the timeline for the class of 2010. They offer some potential solutions, of which several hold promise:

  • Hold "harmless" the class of 2010 until a resolution is apparent, and reinstate the BST as the Minnesota graduation requirement until a resolution is reached.
  • Create alternative pathways to demonstrate mathematics' proficiency, including presentations of alternative evidence from an ACT, SAT, AP, CLEP, Accuplacer, or IB test, locally designed course taking, and assessments against required standards.
  • Consider that if a student has passed an associated course, the mathematics standards requirement has been met.
  • Use four nationally recognized components of 'mathematics mastery' to frame an alternative pathway of end of course or other assessment processes that reference algebra, geometry, probability and statistics, and number sense.

These solutions don't identify other problems associated with GRAD, including manpower allocation: If hundreds of seniors need remedial math classes, who is going to teach them and where will cash-starved school districts find the money to pay them?

The idea of basic skills is a good one, but a program that creates more problems than it solves, and puts a burden on 12th-graders and the schools that serve them is unfair.  It's time for state policymakers to take a step back, consider what they have wrought, and recreate the GRAD program into assessments that will truly open opportunities for Minnesota students, not hamstring them.

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