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After the Test

July 06, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Even Camelot had its sanitation problems. It's a truism that no matter how great the plan, someone still has to clean up the mess.

This is the case with state-mandated math GRAD standards. GRAD, or Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma, tests a student's abilities in math, reading and writing. A student receives a diploma upon passing the test. If a student doesn't pass, the diploma is withheld and schools are obligated to hold remedial classes to help these students catch up to their peers.

Here's the rub: The writing GRAD test is offered in 9th grade and the reading GRAD test in 10th, giving struggling students plenty of time to retake the test. But the math GRAD test is offered at the end of 11th grade, leaving students only two semesters for remedial work.

The Minnesota Department of Education recently reported that 42 percent of Minnesota's 68,000 11th graders failed to pass the 2009 math test. That means Minnesota schools will need to provide remedial math education to about 29,000 12th graders next year. The process of finding teachers for remedial math education will put a huge strain on schools that are already financially strapped.

Owatonna Senior High principal Don Johnson candidly laid out the issue. "I have about 400 11th graders. Fifty seven percent of them passed the state math test, so that means we have about 160 students that we have to put through special math classes."

To do this, Johnson has added 2.3 math FTE (full-time equivalent employees). Unfortunately, these teachers come at a cost. Owatonna cut millions of dollars from last year's budget and millions more in cuts is expected next year. "We've lost FTE for art, FACS, industrial arts, etc. And that's just this year. We'll be back at it again next year, " he said.

The reading and math tests are embedded in the MCA-II test given to students in April or May. Minnesota uses the MCA-II test for its evaluation in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Minnesota's 10th-grade students took the reading GRAD assessment for the first time last year. Nearly 80 percent passed the test this spring. The writing GRAD assessment, which is not embedded into the MCA-II, is designed to measure whether 9th graders have basic writing skills. Nearly 90 percent of 9th-graders met the writing graduation requirement this spring.

Understanding that there is a time crunch for those who fail the math GRAD assessment, state lawmakers this spring gave educators a five-year reprieve to figure out a way to handle the glut of high school seniors who need math remediation in one school year. For the next five years, students who don't pass the math GRAD test can still graduate if they complete all coursework required for graduation, participate in math remediation, and participate in at least two retests of the math GRAD exam.

The key to remediation is teachers, which brings us back to Johnson in Owatonna. He agrees that high standards are worthy, but says the math standards may be too high and not be useful for many students. "Even if 87 percent pass, that's means 13 percent won't graduate? That's illogical," he said.

"Seniors are strongly motivated to get a diploma so they will likely attend remediation classes," said Joann Knuth, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

"But in reality what's sacrificed is what comes out of their schedule," she said. "Art, world language. There's only so much time in the day and before- or after-school classes are tough because students take the bus. These are some of the challenges and concerns with the GRAD test."

Wrap up with something about schools cleaning up for students to catch up, but problems will arise if there is inadequate state investment.

State policymakers have set high goals for Minnesota students, but have not given schools the resources necessary to allow students to meet those goals. If the governor and lawmakers were serious about having students meet the state math goals, they would either adjust the testing schedule to allow more time for remedial teaching, or offer more money to hire more teachers to meet the need for remedial teaching.

Somebody's got to clean up the mess. The question is, will they get the right tools to do it.

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