Minnesota Graduates Failing Students

Published August 1, 2012

Minnesota students are failing math and getting away with it.  Minnesota school districts waive thousands of students to graduation each year, though these same students fail required high school math exams.

In 2009 the state raised math standards, on both teaching and graduation exams. In the most recent round this year, 43 percent of  high school students failed the exam on their first try.

Instead of holding 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 him 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 Partnerthip’s education policy director.

Lack of Information
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 if 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 supposed to indicate whether students are ready,” she said.

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

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

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

Students lacking math skills negatively affect Minnesota’s economy, Bartholomew said.

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

Seeking Solutions
Former Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who oversaw the tougher math standard implementation, said waivers may no longer be necessary by 2014, when the program expires. The student pass rate increases every year, and with a commitment to the standards, the rate will continue increasing, she said.

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

Bartholomew said the state should also consider ending social promotion so students don’t reach high school until they’ve mastered foundational knowledge.

“The key is to have a consensus that a diploma in Minnesota means a certain standard,” he said. “We are not going to give it to you if you don’t meet a certain expectation.”

Image by Office of Governor Patrick.