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'Culture of second chances' -- or opportunity for struggling students?

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Jon Anderson addresses his AP US history students.
Kennedy social studies teacher Jon Anderson addresses his AP U.S. history students before they take a test on April 13. After he grades their tests, Anderson's students can improve their scores by correcting wrong answers for partial credit.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

A push in some Minnesota high schools to help every student succeed is prompting some teachers to ask: Is school hard enough?

As schools try to close the achievement gap, some educators worry that a shift in grading standards isn't preparing their students for college or the workplace. 

Full coverage: How did we get here? What's at stake? And what will it take to find a solution? 

Bloomington's Kennedy High School has steadily improved its graduation rates over the years. It's a place where most of the students are kids of color and come from low-income backgrounds. 

Before the students in Jon Anderson's Advanced Placement U.S. history class take a big test, he gives them instructions. 

"These scores will be graded today," he told them last week before the test. "You will get them back on Friday. At that point, you'll have one week to do your test corrections to fix the answers you got wrong."

That's right: The students have a chance to take their graded tests home to fix the wrong answers. Anderson will give them partial credit if they get the answers right the second time around. 

He knows it sounds crazy. At first he thought it was crazy, too, but he said he's come to realize how much pressure some of his kids are under.

"The whole notion that you would get an opportunity to redo a test — it just honestly blew my mind," Anderson said. 

"But teaching high school, you learn so many stories about the kids that you deal with on a daily basis. We have homeless kids. We have kids who are struggling with food to eat. We have kids who are working to pay the rent for their family. They have so much more going on in their lives than their U.S. history exam."

Anderson said he now sees that his most important job is to teach his kids history. By allowing students to re-take tests, he said, they'll go back and relearn the things they missed. 

JFK teacher David Doty
Kennedy High School teacher David Doty said there's a philosophical debate among his colleagues about whether they should allow their students to re-take tests. Doty said he wants to best prepare his students for college and doesn't think they should be able to completely redo tests to improve their grades.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

But some of his colleagues aren't so sure. 

"Personally, I don't like it," said David Doty, who has taught science for more than 20 years.

Doty's department has fought back against this idea of re-takes, and many science teachers at Kennedy don't allow them at all. Doty said some students still angle for a do-over, even before they've answered a single test question.   "They'll look at the test, and then they'll say, 'Is there going to be a re-take?'" he said. "It suggests to me that it's looked at like in a real irresponsible or immature way, that 'I'm not gonna study — because that's real work.'"

Education experts wouldn't argue that kids can be irresponsible about doing their work, but they need adults in their lives to push them along. 

And if a student's parents have never finished high school or are new to the country, sometimes the kids are left to figure out school on their own. That's how Kennedy senior Mariana Camacho Castillo sees it.

Student advocate Rosa Flores and Mariana Camacho
Student advocate Rosa Flores stands with Mariana Camacho Castillo, 18, in the hallway of Kennedy High School
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"They don't have the support — the support they want," she said. "They just don't have someone to care for them, to look out for them, and keep pointing them, 'Go this way, go this way, fight for your dreams.' Instead, they don't have anybody, so they're like, 'I might as well not do anything.' And that's what I feel like."

Mariana got support, through a student advocate at Kennedy, as well as an older sister who helped raise her while her mom went back to Mexico for a while.

But teachers can show support, too. English teacher Kathryn Haddad says giving students second chances often creates more work for the teacher. But she says, the changes are for the better.

"Kids feel that way too. 'It's not like, 'Oh my God,' I'm not going to pass anyway, I'm not going to graduate, I'm just going to drop out, that's it.' I don't know how many of those people would go back to get a high school diploma. And a high school diploma is not that much a ticket to a fantastic future, but without a high school diploma, it seems really bleak."

At Kennedy, a lot of teachers — including Doty, the science teacher who opposes test re-takes — accept homework past the due date. The thinking is that the best punishment isn't really a zero — it's getting the student to do their homework, even if it's late. 

And as part of a district-wide policy, homework is worth less toward a student's grade than it typically was in the past. The idea is to grade the students on their understanding of academic standards — through tests, presentations and big projects — rather than the daily class work. The policy is similar to one Minnetonka schools implemented years ago.

Still, other teachers worry that in a culture of second chances for students, they're not preparing their kids for college. About 22 percent of Minnesota high school graduates go on to take remedial courses once they get to college. The rates are much higher for students of color. 

And many employers also complain that high school graduates aren't ready for the workplace, said Stacey Stout, director of education and workforce development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. 

They're missing a lot of skills that might be deemed "soft," but imperative, she said — everything from showing up on time to being self starters.

"What we hear from our members is that they have a lot of jobs that could be filled by people with a high school degree," she said, "but they're still finding a lack of skills when they hire them."