Minnesota Graduates Failing Students [short]

Published August 1, 2012

School districts in Minnesota waive thousands of students to graduation each year, though these students fail required high school math exams.

In 2009 the state raised math standards and toughened graduation exams. This year, 43 percent of high school students failed the exam on their first try.

Instead of holding those students back, Minnesota created a waiver system. Students can take the test twice. If they fail both, the district considers each student’s overall performance and decides whether to grant a waiver.

“Simply passing a waiver is the easiest thing for the system to do, but the most detrimental for the students,” said Jim Bartholomew, the Minnesota Business Partnership’s education policy director.

The exams test basic algebra, geometry, and some higher mathematics.

‘Sending the Wrong Message’
Minnesota school districts are not required to document how many students receive waivers, which makes it harder to help more students pass, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

Twenty-six states currently require students to pass an exit exam before graduation, and other states use various examinations to determine whether a student should graduate. Zinth finds Minnesota’s system unusual and unfair.

“It’s sending the wrong message to students, parents, and adults in the district that students are ready for the next level after high school when students aren’t passing a test that’s supposed to indicate whether they’re ready,” she said.

Poor Skills Hurt Economy
The tests were created to help students compete with their national and international peers. Abandoning high math standards will hinder students after graduation, says Herb Walberg, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and chairman of The Heartland Institute’s board.

Walberg notes American students trail their global counterparts. The most successful countries maintain high education standards, he said.

“Employers need the best talent they can find. If they can’t find it in Minnesota, they will go somewhere else,” Bartholomew noted.

Seeking Solutions
Former Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who oversaw the tougher math standard implementation, says waivers may no longer be necessary when the program expires in 2014. The student pass rate is increasing every year, she noted.

If Minnesota ends waivers and fewer students graduate, “you are going to have a lot of angry students and parents,” Zinth said. She recommends undertaking a system review to see why students can’t pass.

Image by Office of Governor Patrick.