AccountabilityAchievement & Assessment

Major Assessment Reform Effort Launched in Minnesota

By December 2, 2012 No Comments

The state Assessment and Accountability Working Group voted last week to recommend dropping Minnesota’s GRAD exam and replacing it with new college-ready assessments designed to hold schools accountable for making sure every student graduates well-prepared for college or career. Commissioner Cassellius announced on the Minnesota Department of Education website on Friday that she plans to forward the final draft of the report to legislators in mid-December.

Grades 8-12 Recommendations
The guts of the recommendations for grades 8-12 are not only to eliminate the GRAD, but to not replace the GRAD with another high stakes graduation exam (i.e. a minimum required score on any assessment that would deny a student a high school diploma). Instead, the working group recommends implementing a suite of college readiness assessments that:

  • Include math, reading, writing and/or science
  • Are aligned to college and career standards
  • Predict student success in post-secondary (career, two-year, four-year) programming
  • Provide districts with results to inform counseling
  • Point out needs for early intervention
  • Are sufficiently robust to satisfy admissions requirements for state colleges and universities

There is significant emphasis on diagnostic assessment to identify college ready skills and content students need to address while still in high school rather than taking non-credit bearing, developmental courses when they get to college. This recommendation for grades 8-12 passed 26-2 in the working group.

The main rationale is that the jobs of the 21st century require post-secondary degrees and certificates. As a result, students need to know their pathways and how to improve them, and the P-20 education systems need to be aligned better. For more information on the background for this recommendation see the 11-13-12 High School-College-Workforce Transitions-Summary and Minnesota Statutes

Elementary Recommendations
At the elementary level there are two main recommendations:

  • Begin negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education regarding additional waiver flexibility from NCLB) to develop a state of the art assessment system in Grades 3-7 with diagnostic and adaptive capabilities to provide immediate and actionable data to educators, parents and students across the full spectrum of potential student performance
  • Make available to school districts pre-school and kindergarten reading readiness, age appropriate literacy development assessments

Other Recommendations
There are a number of other recommendations to surround and support these main recommendations. One of those supportive recommendations is to have MDE and the Office of Higher Education (OHE) continue to collaborate on the State-Wide Longitudinal Data System (SLEDS) linking K-12 data with postsecondary and employment data.  The idea is to data readily available to determine if these recommendations have the intended outcomes: having more of Minnesota’s students ready for college and career by the end of their K-12 years.

Next Steps
The full report is expected to be available mid-December.  It is a report to Commissioner Cassellius.  It is then in her hands and Governor Dayton to craft the 2013 proposals for reform of the Minnesota Assessment and Accountability system.

These recommendations line up very well with the MREA platform on assessment and accountability.

A Look Back
For the past 20 years Minnesota and the nation have been involved in a debate on what are the standards for what students learn in school, what are the minimum requirements for a high school diploma, and how do students demonstrate that level of knowledge and skills. For excellent review of the Minnesota history of standards, link Beth Aune’s presentation at the MREA Annual Conference:  Where Do Standards Come From.

Since 1992, “exit exams” for students to show eligibility for a high school diploma have been part of the Minnesota picture.  2009-10, the College and Career-Ready Policy Institute assembled an Assessment Working Group that produced the ACCESS report included the following history of the issue of exit exams.

 According to a 2009 study by the Center on Education Policy, Minnesota is one of 26 U.S. states that now require or are planning to require students to participate in mandatory exit exams to earn a high school diploma (Zhang and Jennings, 2009). In Minnesota, the decision to adopt a high school exit examination requirement was made in 1992, when the legislature created the Minnesota Basic Skills Tests (later rechristened the Basic Standards Tests) in reading, mathematics and writing. Starting in the year 2000, students had to achieve at or above a cut score on each exam to earn a diploma. The exams were designed to assess student mastery of content they should have learned by 8th grade, which was the first year they took the exam. Those who did not pass on the first attempt could retake the test twice a year through the spring of 12th grade.

Pass rates during the first years the BST tests were administered increased from 70% in 1998 to 74% in 2002 in mathematics, and in reading they grew from 68% to 80% over the same time period (Cornell, Krosnick and Chang, 2006).

Shortly after Governor Tim Pawlenty was elected in 2002, the state decided to transition to a more challenging high school test, which came to be known as the Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma (or GRAD). The test is administered as part of the state MCA tests in three subject areas (thus adding stakes for students to the tests that are also used to hold schools accountable under No Child Left Behind). Students take the GRAD writing test for the first time in 9th grade, the GRAD reading test in 10th grade and the GRAD math test in grade 11.

In 2009, 89% of the state’s 9th graders passed the writing test on their first attempt, while 78% of Minnesota’s 10th graders passed the GRAD reading test the same year. In mathematics, 57% of the state’s 11th graders passed the test, which meant that 43% of the 11th grade cohort had one year to do so in order to graduate from high school on time. And while 63 percent of the state’s white students got over the required academic bar, only 52 percent of Minnesota’s Asian students did so, followed by 31 percent of Latino students, 30 percent of American Indian students and 21 percent of African American students.

Faced with the prospect of denying diplomas to so many students, the legislature and the governor passed a five-year reprieve that enables students to earn a high school diploma even if they fail the 11th grade graduation test in math. No such reprieve was put in place for the reading and writing tests, so scoring at or above the passing levels on those assessments remains a requirement for all students who are not exempted based on their status as students with disabilities or English Language Learners.  (ACCESS Report pp. 6-7)

That “reprieve” is scheduled to expire in 2014, which means the class of 2015, who are the current 10th graders, will need to pass all three GRAD tests to receive a diploma.  While the statistics for passing the GRAD tests have improved some since 2009, there will still be a significant portion of seniors who otherwise would graduate based on credit attainment but will not due to one or more of the exit exams,  the impending deadline, and the sheer amount of testing students are doing in all grades were the impetus for the Commissioner to call together this working group.

Throughout this twenty year “debate,” there have been shifting perspectives on the meaning of a high school diploma, what are the minimum skills a student needs to graduate, and how are those demonstrated.  At the same time, “the research in this area, while inconclusive, has shown no benefit to exit exams to most students, and significant negative impact on a smaller subset of students.” Dr. Kent Pekel, in remarks to the working group.

Within the context of the history of this issue, this working group really made four conclusions:

  1. The damage caused by exit exams exceeds whatever benefit they have and should be eliminated as a requirement for high school graduation.
  2. Given the increasing importance of post-secondary education to Minnesota’s workforce, “How are our students doing in college readiness,” is a more important question to answer than whether they have achieved a certain skill level for diploma.
  3. Assessment results are primarily for the student, teacher and family, and assessments need to be designed for those users with timeliness of results a primary concern.
  4. There needs to be a robust data system to collect data on college readiness and students’ skill levels so questions about the alignment and effectiveness of the system and what a diploma means can have answers informed with empirical data.