Minnesota lawmakers are considering whether to drop the high-stakes GRAD tests, a series of reading, writing and math exams students must pass to receive a high school diploma.
A bill authored by Democratic state lawmakers would replace the exams, which begin in the ninth grade, with a group of assessment tests that measure whether students are on track to graduate and go to college or start a career.
The idea would be welcomed by some educators who say the state can do better than requiring Minnesota students to take a big test at the end of their high school career to determine if they're ready to graduate.
A better system would assess students all along, starting in eighth grade, to see if they're headed in the right direction, said Dave Heistad, the director of research, evaluation and assessment in the Bloomington School district.
"All students would find out early on in middle school whether they're on track," Heistad said. "All of us would try to work together to try to make that students who aren't on course for their particular vision would be able to accomplish that."
That way, Heistad said, schools could help students as move through high school, instead of using remedial courses to prepare them for graduation near the end.
That idea is at the core of a proposal being considered by state lawmakers. Minnesota's education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, prefers it to the current system of testing, which she said is too complicated for students.
"I want to stay the course and lift the expectations and make sure that teachers are doing the job in the classroom of addressing the needs of all students."
"Right now they get information on all these different tests that are given locally," she said. "We want to be able to say 'This is the test that you need to pay attention to.' "
Cassellius and other Minnesota education officials would like to base a new system on the ACT college entrance exams, or something similar. The rationale for the approach, is that if a student does well enough on the ACT to be accepted to any number of post-secondary programs, from Harvard to a technical school or even the military, then they've learned enough to graduate from high school.
Under the current system, that isn't necessarily the case, especially with the math portion of the GRAD test. A passing score on the math exam equates to a score of 19 on the math portion of the ACT, while many colleges only require an 18 to enroll.
"I think if a student has been accepted into a post-secondary program that to me is a very strong indication that the institution that is accepting them feels they're ready to be successful there," said Dan Hoverman, superintendent of the Mounds View school district. But some lawmakers don't want to get rid of the current system of testing students' readiness to graduate.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the GRAD test is a good benchmark to show students have earned their diploma.
"So I want to stay the course and lift the expectations and make sure that teachers are doing the job in the classroom of addressing the needs of all students," said Erickson, the ranking minority member of the House Education Policy Committee.
She thinks the current tests will raise students' performance, "to the level that they're going to be ready for whatever they pursue."
Erickson is concerned that the proposed changes would discourage some students from attending college, instead putting them on a career track as early as middle school.
But Heistad, of the Bloomington district, said state officials need to be mindful that, by 2015 the GRAD test's math requirements will tighten.
Estimates are 15 to 20 percent of Minnesota students will fail the exam, and won't graduate, hurting the state's already meager graduation rate of 77 percent.
"We're setting ourselves up for a real problem if we have such high expectations for mathematics just to get out of high school," he said.
The effort to eliminate the high-stakes GRAD test and put a new system in place is now part of the K-12 omnibus bill. It's among several education related measures that lawmakers will vote on later this session.