Double testing costing Minnesotans millions / Joe Nathan’s Column

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Double testing of our high school students is costing Minnesotans millions of dollars. That’s money that could be better spent.
Joe Nathan

What about spending some of those millions on, for example, high-quality early childhood programs? Or on extra-curricular programs? The ACT found many years ago that participation in debate, drama, speech, music and journalism programs was a better predictor of adult success than good grades or high scores on their tests.

Over the last couple of years, Minnesota legislators have made major changes in high school graduation requirements. But despite good intentions, the result is that high school students are now required to take more statewide tests than before. That costs millions and takes time. Meanwhile, high schools are being held accountable for results, though their students know they don’t have to pass these tests to graduate.

Legislators decided to modify statewide testing requirements for several reasons.

For example, despite a requirement that before graduating, students must pass tests in reading and writing, thousands of high school graduates still took remedial courses at Minnesota’s public colleges and universities. Furthermore, this requirement prevented some students, such as those for whom English is not a first language, from graduating from high school, though they had passed all their classes.

So legislators changed the system.

First, starting in the ninth grade, students now must develop an individual post-high school plan. That’s a great idea. Like anything else, it needs to be implemented well. I’ll discuss this in a future column.

Second, legislators eliminated the requirement that students pass any statewide tests before graduating. Instead, high school students would take one of several tests, such as the ACT, that would help them understand where they stood regarding expectations various institutions had. Or students could take the “ASVAB,” which the military gives to applicants. This would help students develop and refine their post-high school plans.

However, as Jim Bartholomew of the Minnesota Business Partnership explained (and Josh Collins of Minnesota Department of Education confirmed), something happened that was not expected. Legislators found that they could not simply substitute the military or ACT test for the statewide tests called Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

So we’re now paying the ACT about $13.5 million for use of their tests over the next two years while we’re paying another company for the MCAs.

Collins told me via email, “I think the intent of the legislature was to do a substitution.” Among other problems with this, he noted: “… State and federal statute requires assessments to be aligned to the most recent revision of Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards. ACT, which provides tests across the country, is not able to align an exam to the specific standards of only one state. Therefore, under current statute, substituting the ACT for the MCA isn’t allowed.”

The Minnesota Business Partnership recommended that Minnesota continue to require that students pass statewide tests to graduate. MBP thinks eliminating this requirement will produce more students who are not prepared for jobs or some form of one-, two- or four-year program at a college or university.

I’m not sure. I think we should try the new approach, as long as we continue measuring whether the percentage of graduates taking remedial courses goes up or down. That’s part of current plans.

But requiring students to take both MCAs and the ACT seems wasteful of time and money.

Collins at MDE disagrees. He wrote in part, “While we were not able to do a one-to-one substitution of one test for another, we believe that both tests have value.”

Minnesotans rightly have made education a priority. More than half of the state’s budget goes for K-12, college and university support. We need to make the best possible use of that money. One way is to reduce the number of tests students must take.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.