Graduation rate report misleading

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Minnesota’s Department of Education recently made a major announcement about high school graduation rates increasing that left out something important.

MDE materials distributed to the press did not mention that there was a major change in high school graduation requirements between 2012 and 2013. Students hoping to graduate in spring 2012 were required to pass statewide reading and writing tests (called GRAD tests), but in 2013, students were no longer required to do so. Instead, they were required to take one of several tests – such as the ACT – but they were not required to score at a particular level. For several years, students haven’t had to pass a statewide math test to graduate.

Before deciding whether the higher graduation rates are great news, we need to know whether a higher percentage of Minnesota students graduated from high school in spring 2013 simply because expectations were different.

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said in a press release that Minnesota’s high school graduation rate increased overall by 1.93 percent from 2012 to 2013. She believes this was “the result of targeted investments by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature, as well as greater accountability for schools through our waiver, and the incredible work being done each and every day by Minnesota’s educators.”

Minnesota Department of Education statistics also showed greater graduation rates gains for groups such as American Indian (3 percent), Asian (4 percent), Hispanic (5 percent) and Black (6 percent). The MDE press release also asserts: “No single group of students made less than a 3 percentage point gain.”

That’s not accurate. Materials MDE handed out at the press conference show white students made a 1.13 percent gain, and special education students made a 1.53 percent gain.

Unquestionably, most of the credit should go to students, educators and families. In the most effective schools, those folks are working together to help young people develop their skills and talents.

However, as I talked with more than 20 district and charter school leaders, legislators and community officials, a number of them cited the change in state requirements as one of the reasons for increased high school graduation rates.

The confusion I heard from school administrators about what tests students had to pass is not surprising. Let’s say parents want to know what tests their children must pass to graduate. As of Feb. 19, here’s what the MDE had written about the role of statewide assessments in determining which students would graduate: “Assessments: Based on new legislation, the graduation assessment requirements have changed. Additional information will be provided as soon as possible once a comprehensive review of the new requirements is completed.” (Find this at http://bit.ly/1fhp25R.)

The “new legislation” was adopted in spring 2013. Accurate, updated information should be available on the MDE website. Given the lack of clarity, no wonder some people are confused.

Were the new requirements a good idea? Opinions are split.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the Minnesota House Education Policy Committee, wrote to me via email: “I’m told that repeal of the GRAD in (one district) alone resulted in an additional 187 ELL (English language learners program) students to graduate. I think that is good because it means that 187 students are able to continue with their dreams in jobs or post-secondary. Remember, they still have to pass their courses, show up to school, etc. in order to graduate.”

But Jim Bartholomew, education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, told me: “It would be groundbreaking news if the graduation rate did NOT increase – the state eliminated its basic skills expectations in reading, writing and math! We may be misleading graduates, their families and the broader community into thinking graduates have the skills they need to succeed in colleges and the work world.”

In a MDE press conference Feb. 19, I asked Commissioner Cassellius how many districts graduated students who had not passed the tests, but were allowed to graduate because of legislative changes in spring 2013. She said that she did not know.

Steve Massey, principal at Forest Lake High School, believes the increased statewide high school graduation rates are due in part because of “the alternative route to passing the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments” that allowed students to take other tests if they could not pass the statewide reading or writing test. He also cited legislation that requires students take two years of what he calls “core algebra” beginning in eighth grade. Massey also thinks the increased graduation rate is partially a result of “increased rigor of the middle-level standards, particularly in math, along with an increased emphasis on college readiness.”

It seems to me that in describing increases in 2013 graduation rates, state officials should acknowledge the graduation requirement change.

Improving graduation rates is a good thing if it means more students are well prepared for what they want to do next in life. Right now, we don’t know how many are or aren’t.

We do know that part of the reason more students graduated is because Minnesota changed its rules on what students have to do to graduate.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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