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Diploma Trouble on the Horizon

February 18, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota's new GRAD test will increase the number of dropouts, a survey of state principals shows.

Nearly 84 percent of Minnesota's high school principals say many more students won't graduate because of the high-stakes test now required for a diploma. What's more, they say that providing remedial classes for students who fail the tests will drain already scarce resources from the rest of the school.

In December, 428 principals took an on-line, non-scientific survey for Minnesota 2020 in which they were asked about the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma.

Students must pass the GRAD tests to get a diploma. The test in writing is given in ninth grade, reading in 10th grade and math in 11th grade. If a student fails a test, he can take the test again the following year.

The GRAD tests are being phased in. This spring, next year's graduating class will get their first crack at the math test.

It's the timing of the math test that has principals worried. GRAD math results won't be returned until after summer vacation starts; leaving students only their senior year to take remedial math classes and retake the test.

"I will be interested in the response of the people of Minnesota when thousands of students don't graduate next year because of the MCA test," one principal wrote.

Another problem the principals see is resource allocation - 87 percent said they are going to divert resources from other subjects to provide remedial classes.

"Where am I going to find remedial teachers?" another principal wrote. "I'll tell you where I'm going to find them - in physical education, world languages and FACS (family and consumer science)."

More than 75 percent said adding remedial classes will negatively affect the quality of education in their school.

"My heart goes out to all of the elective teachers of the world," one principal wrote. "They're slowly being squeezed out to make room for remedial classes. When the choice is to graduate from high school or take an elective class that is not required, guess which one wins. ... Some students stay in school just because they get to take an art, FACS or industrial technology class. Good luck getting them to stay in school once this no longer becomes an option for them."

Lawmakers are trying to make adjustments.

Sen. Chuck Wiger is planning to introduce a law that would allow students who don't pass the tests during the next three years to graduate if they get remediation in the subject area, retake the test at least twice and meet all other graduation requirements.

"We're talking about some very high-stakes tests that impact students' lives and futures," Wiger told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "The goal is to provide flexibility as we evolve into a more responsive testing system."

Another suggestion is to substitute end-of-course exams for the graduation tests. Supporters argue end-of-course exams motivate students to do their best and better determine mastery of a subject.

According to the Pioneer Press, last year nine out of 10 freshmen passed the state's writing exam, three out of four sophomores passed the reading exam, but nearly two out of three juniors failed to meet state math standards.
Simple answers to complex questions, such as the GRAD test, generally meet with an unfortunate ramification, and Minnesota principals are telling us that this is the case with the GRAD test. Vigorous school, teacher and student accountability requires vigorous funding. Without appropriate funding, unachievable graduation standards create failure and cloud Minnesota's future.

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