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Minnesota’s new ACT requirement has educators worried

By Christopher Magan / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Every Minnesota high school junior will take the ACT in April at the state’s expense, thanks to legislation passed in 2013 that still has some educators scratching their heads.

The college-entrance exam and other ACT-prep tests are part of a $13.5 million effort to assess students’ “college and career readiness.” The Iowa-based testing giant was the only bidder to provide the assessments required by the “World’s Best Workforce” legislation passed last year.

The tests replace the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma, or GRAD, that lawmakers phased out. Minnesota is the 12th state to give every high school student the ACT and one of a handful of states to require it for graduation.

That requirement doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Lakeville school board members debated the merits of requiring the college-entrance test, ahead of a required public hearing to discuss the district’s college- and career-readiness plans. Board member Michelle Volk questioned why there was no way for parents to opt out of the test if their child already had taken it or they felt it was unnecessary.

“If a parent decides what is in the best interest of their student, there should be a way the state of Minnesota should allow this district to allow that child to graduate,” Volk said.

Kevin McHenry, the Minnesota Department of Education’s assistant commissioner overseeing testing, said state officials have heard concerns from some school leaders and are looking at options.

Changes likely will require approval of the Legislature.

“That’s one of the things we are actively looking at to see what type of special circumstances there might be,” McHenry said.

Beyond the difficulty of mandating a new test for graduation, other education advocates worry that requiring students take another test might not be the best way to guarantee they are college- and career-ready.

When lawmakers voted to require the ACT, the initial hope was that the test would replace both the GRAD and the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, required under federal accountability rules.

In August, three months after the state inked the $13.5 million deal with ACT, the Department of Education released a short study that found the ACT was not aligned enough with state education standards. That means students still have to take MCAs in reading, math and science in addition to the new ACT tests.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said his group supported giving all students the ACT, but he is concerned state leaders didn’t do more to make the most of the new tests taxpayers are funding.

“This law passed in 2013, presumably something could have been done in 2014,” Bartholomew said. “That’s part of the frustration.”

Bartholomew also is concerned that there is no minimum score for students to graduate. With the GRAD, students had to earn a certain score or get a waiver in order to get a diploma.

Cut scores are important, Bartholomew says, because they are a good indicator of college readiness. He points to a recent report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that shows students who score proficient on the MCAs need fewer developmental college courses.

“We already have something in place that works very well,” Bartholomew said.

McHenry says most Minnesota students, about 75 percent, already were taking the ACT and ACT-prep tests that the state is now funding. State leaders felt it was important to gauge college readiness rather than have high school exit exams, but they have less control over how national college-entrance assessments are designed.

“The bottom line, what we are getting out of this legislation, is we have better testing that provides better information for families, students and teachers,” McHenry said.

Mary Cecconi, who leads Parents United for Public Schools, says too much attention is being paid to whether the ACT perfectly lines up with state standards. Cecconi says Minnesota students’ routinely high ACT scores are evidence that state academic standards line up with the test.

“If our standards do not align with a college test, maybe we should question our standards,” Cecconi said, adding that giving every student a chance to take the ACT was a good move. “It’s one of the most transformative things the Legislature has done in the last session.”

Nonetheless, Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, says education leaders should closely consider new exams before adding another round to an already-packed school year. His group was still reviewing the impact of the ACT requirement.

“I think it’s a real issue for districts,” Schneidawind said. “Accountability is a good thing, but at the end of the day, you also have to understand you have a limited number of instructional days.”

The college-entrance exam and other ACT-prep tests are part of a $13.5 million effort to assess students’ “college and career readiness.” The Iowa-based testing giant was the only bidder to provide the assessments required by the “World’s Best Workforce” legislation passed last year.

The tests replace the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma, or GRAD, that lawmakers phased out. Minnesota is the 12th state to give every high school student the ACT and one of a handful of states to require it for graduation.

That requirement doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Lakeville school board members debated the merits of requiring the college-entrance test, ahead of a required public hearing to discuss the district’s college- and career-readiness plans. Board member Michelle Volk questioned why there was no way for parents to opt out of the test if their child already had taken it or they felt it was unnecessary.

“If a parent decides what is in the best interest of their student, there should be a way the state of Minnesota should allow this district to allow that child to graduate,” Volk said.

Kevin McHenry, the Minnesota Department of Education’s assistant commissioner overseeing testing, said state officials have heard concerns from some school leaders and are looking at options.

Changes likely will require approval of the Legislature.

“That’s one of the things we are actively looking at to see what type of special circumstances there might be,” McHenry said.

Beyond the difficulty of mandating a new test for graduation, other education advocates worry that requiring students take another test might not be the best way to guarantee they are college- and career-ready.

When lawmakers voted to require the ACT, the initial hope was that the test would replace both the GRAD and the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, required under federal accountability rules.

In August, three months after the state inked the $13.5 million deal with ACT, the Department of Education released a short study that found the ACT was not aligned enough with state education standards. That means students still have to take MCAs in reading, math and science in addition to the new ACT tests.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said his group supported giving all students the ACT, but he is concerned state leaders didn’t do more to make the most of the new tests taxpayers are funding.

“This law passed in 2013, presumably something could have been done in 2014,” Bartholomew said. “That’s part of the frustration.”

Bartholomew also is concerned that there is no minimum score for students to graduate. With the GRAD, students had to earn a certain score or get a waiver in order to get a diploma.

Cut scores are important, Bartholomew says, because they are a good indicator of college readiness. He points to a recent report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that shows students who score proficient on the MCAs need fewer developmental college courses.

“We already have something in place that works very well,” Bartholomew said.

McHenry says most Minnesota students, about 75 percent, already were taking the ACT and ACT-prep tests that the state is now funding. State leaders felt it was important to gauge college readiness rather than have high school exit exams, but they have less control over how national college-entrance assessments are designed.

“The bottom line, what we are getting out of this legislation, is we have better testing that provides better information for families, students and teachers,” McHenry said.

Mary Cecconi, who leads Parents United for Public Schools, says too much attention is being paid to whether the ACT perfectly lines up with state standards. Cecconi says Minnesota students’ routinely high ACT scores are evidence that state academic standards line up with the test.

“If our standards do not align with a college test, maybe we should question our standards,” Cecconi said, adding that giving every student a chance to take the ACT was a good move. “It’s one of the most transformative things the Legislature has done in the last session.”

Nonetheless, Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, says education leaders should closely consider new exams before adding another round to an already-packed school year. His group was still reviewing the impact of the ACT requirement.

“I think it’s a real issue for districts,” Schneidawind said. “Accountability is a good thing, but at the end of the day, you also have to understand you have a limited number of instructional days.”

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