ACT to replace former pre-graduation exams

By Christopher Magan / St. Paul Pioneer Press Next school year, most Minnesota middle and high school students will take a version of the ACT on the state's dime. In May, the Minnesota Department of Education quietly inked a $13.5 million deal wi...

By Christopher Magan / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Next school year, most Minnesota middle and high school students will take a version of the ACT on the state’s dime.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Education quietly inked a $13.5 million deal with the Iowa-based testing giant to provide the state with assessments to gauge students’ college and career readiness through 2016. ACT, or American College Testing, was the only bidder.

The ACT-developed tests come after the 2013 Legislature approved a measure requiring districts to make sure students are prepared for higher education or the workforce before leaving high school. The new test will replace exams students had to pass before graduation that were eliminated. The exams are in addition to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, that students in third through 10th grade take each year to measure proficiency in English, math and science as required by federal law.

The new ACT assessments come as Gov. Mark Dayton has called on state education officials to rethink all the tests students must take.


About 75 percent of Minnesota students already take the ACT.

Kevin McHenry, the state’s assistant education commissioner who oversees testing, said the new system will put students on a road to college at a younger age by giving them new information about the skills they will need to be successful.

Eighth- and 10th-graders will take ACT-developed tests to make sure they are on track to score well on the ACT college entrance exams nearly every student will take in 11th grade.

“The plan all along has been to think beyond high school and prepare students for life after high school,” McHenry said. “It’s a mind-set change.”

The ACT tests essentially replace the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma, or GRAD tests, high school students had to pass in math and English to finish high school. The state had given students a waiver from passing the math portion that was set to expire, forcing lawmakers to act.

Lawmakers’ decision to eliminate the GRAD test was criticized as a step backward from Minnesota’s rigorous academic standards. Critics say they support the idea of improving college readiness, but they worry eliminating graduation tests will mean more unprepared students will head to college or the workforce.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said he fears eliminating graduation tests will result in more students who need to pay for remedial courses, further driving up college costs. Remedial, or developmental, courses essentially review skills students should have mastered in high school.

“Shouldn’t we make sure students are ready for college when they graduate rather than send them out where they have to pay for everything?” Bartholomew said. “It’s not fair to graduate kids when they are not ready.”


Bartholomew points to the recent “Getting Prepared 2014” report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education as evidence GRAD tests and the MCAs were working. The report shows students who scored proficient needed college remedial courses at a much smaller rate than those who didn’t.

Overall, about 30 percent of Minnesota’s high school graduates that enroll in public colleges and universities need at least one remedial course, the report found. But 47 percent of students who were not proficient in math and 56 percent of students who didn’t meet reading standards needed remedial classes.

Karen Hynick, who oversees college readiness for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, says bringing ACT tests to the state’s middle and high schools should lower, not increase, the need for remedial college courses.

The college and career readiness legislation got high school teachers and college professors together for the first time in a meaningful way to discuss how to ensure students are prepared for the next step, Hynick said. She believes the ACT-developed tests will better identify where students are struggling and allow middle and high school teachers to more quickly intervene.

“I do think the process will result in significantly better outcomes for students,” Hynick said.

MNSCU plans to communicate to students and families scores that are needed on the ACT to do well in college. Hynick said ACT scores at or above 18 in math, 21 reading and 22 in English, on a scale of 1 to 36, will ensure a student is prepared for college work.

“The reality is this new suite of exams allows students and parents to understand just how close to being college- and career-ready students are,” Hynick said.

The move to giving middle and high school students ACT tests comes as Minnesota transitions statewide proficiency exams online.


In January, the state department of education announced vendor Pearson was awarded a $33.8 million contract to provide MCAs for students in third through 10th grades.

Meanwhile, Dayton, in his April State of the State address, called on the Department of Education to review all the tests students are given and report to the 2015 Legislature which ones can be streamlined or eliminated. In the speech, Dayton said the state went “backwards” by requiring new tests.

“The excessive amounts of time and rote learning required by today’s excessive school testing are counterproductive,” Dayton said in his speech. “I urge next year’s legislators to work with state and national experts to reduce the amount of school testing and allow dedicated teachers to spend their time teaching students what they will need for their future success.”

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.

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