Progress; but big questions about Minnesota’s high school math test

Joe Nathan
Center for School Change

Caledonia 11th graders did better than the state’s average on the recent state math test, and that’s encouraging. However, for Caledonia and the state, there’s a major question: Would it be acceptable for more than 40 percent of Minnesota youngsters to not graduate from high school?

The question arises since 42 percent of Minnesota’s high school juniors did not pass Minnesota’s soon to be required math test. That was part of MDE’s new report about spring, 2012.  Compare that 42 percent failure rate to only eight percent of ninth graders who did not pass Minnesota’s writing test currently required for graduation.

Last year’s juniors don’t have to pass that math test to graduate. But, as Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius told me in an interview last week, under current law Minnesota students who want to graduate in spring, 2015 will have to pass this math test to graduate.

Here are area passage rates (rounded to the nearest percent) for eleventh graders, recalling that the statewide average was 58 percent:  Caledonia, 61 percent; Houston, 62 percent; Spring Grove, 59 percent; Rushford-Peterson, 72 percent.

The ten high schools with the highest percentage of students passing included suburban, rural and urban districts and charter public schools.

Minnesota students currently must do three things to graduate from high school.

First, pass courses that give them 21.5 credits with each credit equivalent to a one year long class.  Those credits in English, math, social studies, science, art and physical education, plus courses students select.

Second, students must pass any requirements that school districts add.

Third, students must pass statewide reading and writing tests. Students don’t have to pass the math test to graduate. But, in three years, they will.

As with the reading and writing tests, students will have several chances to pass the math test, which they currently take for the first time in the eleventh grade. I asked the commissioner if she thought significantly more students would pass the math test it was required for graduation. She answered, “no.”  We agreed that at least some would take it more seriously.

However, Cassellius believes that there is a “fundamental flaw in the way we are using graduation tests.”  She thinks we are “trying to do too much” with one test. “We have to decide how we want to hold schools accountable, how to make sure that students are prepared for college and how to insure that diplomas are meaningful.”

She’s appointed a statewide, 34 member “Assessment and Accounting Working Group” to provide her and the legislature with advice.

The task force includes parents, teachers, principals, testing experts, legislators of both parties and representatives of business, union and community groups.

This task force will consider Minnesota’s entire testing program, not just the assessments currently required, for use as part of high school graduation. They also will review testing in grades 3 through 8. At those grades, as the commissioner noted, there is “promising progress” in reading and math.

For more results, see the MDE website, The department will be releasing additional results later in August.

As we consider test results, Minnesotans must consider what’s appropriate to require?  When should we test students, and how?  Graduation for thousands of Minnesota students may depend on our answers.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,