Math GRAD test changes in the works

GRAD test
A sample question from the math GRAD test.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Thomas Kilkelly thinks his team has as good a chance for a state title this year as any in Minnesota.

"We have a really good team," he said.

We're talking, of course, about the math team Kilkelly coaches at Wayzata High School. The Trojans have a nice lead this season after the four competitions.

But mathletes are mathletes because they do math when they don't have to. Kilkelly, who also teaches math, is concerned about those tests that everyone has to take.

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Education Commissioner
Minnesota's Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says she supports the idea of 'end of course' exams.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

"I get nervous when I think about the fact that I'm not going to get the results back here until July," Kilkelly said. "When we get the results, how do you plan for next year's schedule when you have this unknown as to how many number of students are going to be in this group that have to retest and be re-mediated so they can take this test again."

School leaders across the state have wondered how they'll be able to get students to focus next year on re-taking a test just as senioritis sets in. But Kilkelly also worries about those who aren't native English speakers. Consider, for a minute, this sample question:

A rabbit population grew in the following pattern...2,4,8,16...If all the rabbits live and the pattern continues, how many rabbits will be in the 8th generation? (Answer at bottom of page)

A) 32

B) 128

C) 256

D) 512

At some point it gets hard to know if some students who miss that question did so because they didn't know the math or was it because they didn't know the meaning of the word 'generation'?

State lawmakers have been looking into this issue for a few months. They're not interested in making the test easier so everyone passes -- that would just dilute the importance of a diploma, they say. But they have been looking for ways to let high schoolers still graduate, even if they fail this one test.

Their talks have evolved to finding two solutions - one short-term and one long-term. Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, introduced legislation Monday that would address the short-term.

His proposal would require those who fail to take some kind of remediation class and also re-take the GRAD at least twice. If they still fail, they can graduate if they've passed all other courses and gotten the required credits they'd otherwise need to graduate.

His measure is meant only to apply for a couple years while a more longer-term solution is implemented, Wiger said.

"The reality is, still, if they're going to go to college they ultimately will need to achieve a certain level of proficiency of math, and we're doing the best we can in working with higher ed," Wiger said. "But to hold back 10's of thousands of Minnesota students at this point in time doesn't make good sense."

Wiger thinks he has a nice base of general support for his short-term plan. Finding that long-term solution will be trickier.

One idea being discussed is to dump the GRAD and instead create so-called, 'end of course' exams. That means instead of needing to pass one test that measures everything you've learned since first grade, students would be tested at the end of certain courses, like Algebra II, on only that subject.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren likes that idea because it's kind of like a final exam that also lets students know if they're also ready for college.

"We know that if a student does well in that course, Algebra II, their chances of being successful in college are much greater," Seagren said. "So, that's the kind of things we're looking at: What are the practical and door-opening opportunities, instead of a hammer that the GRAD had, whereas if you didn't pass you didn't graduate?"

But not everyone's quite on-board. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St.Paul, who chairs one of the education committees in the House, said some of the testimony he's heard suggests there isn't enough known about 'end of course' exams to know whether they're a good replacement.

"If we go in this direction, we're largely taking a leap of faith at this point," Mariani said. "It's not going to be informed by any data or research. I'm not seeing the rationale behind that, and I don't want to make a decision just to make a decision. I think we have to slow things down and explore things further."

The other problem with a new test is the money they cost to administer; money that most schools would argue they don't have. That's why any longer-term solution on this issue is likely to be tied into budget negotiations.

Those negotiations will probably take place later this spring some time after the Wayzata math team competes for that state title, but before students get the results of this year's GRAD test - results that will let them know whether they can spend their summer relaxing...or worrying.

(The answer is 256.)