Cautious optimism about Minnesota’s high school graduation rates / Joe Nathan’s Column

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Four state education and policy leaders I contacted recently had strong, somewhat different responses to Minnesota Department of Education’s Feb. 24 report about increases in Minnesota’s high school graduation rates. I partly agree with each of them. The news is neither entirely good nor entirely bad.

Many readers are most interested in what’s happening in their own and nearby communities. An MDE website,, shows the most recent graduation rates, along with trends on this and other measures of schools and districts.

Before discussing the statewide debate, here are the 2012-14 trends in a handful of representative communities. I picked these years because Minnesota legislators made changes that had an impact after 2012. The numbers are the four-year high school graduation percentage rates in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively.

In many but not all of the communities, graduation rates increased from 2012 to 2014: Bloomington, 82.8 to 87.1 to 86.9; Caledonia, 94.7 to 93.2 to 97.1; Cambridge-Isanti, 89.3 to 84.9 to 89.5; Columbia Heights, 80.9 to 78.6 to 76.0; Eden Prairie, 84.6 to 88.1 to 88.55; Edina, 94.3 to 93.7 to 96.7; Farmington, 92.9 to 94.2 to 93.4; Forest Lake, 85.4 to 81.2 to 82.6; North Branch, 79.7 to 85.7 to 81.3; Princeton, 92.4 to 91.1 to 91.7; Stillwater 86.7 to 87.9 to 88.6. Caledonia was the highest in 2014 of about 45 districts and schools that I checked.

Statewide, the average has gone from 77.9 to 79.8 to 81.2 in those years.

Part of the statewide debate is how to assess the impact of these changes: Beginning in 2013, Minnesota stopped requiring graduates to pass statewide reading and writing tests. New requirements include students having to take the ACT, a college entrance test. But they are not required to achieve a particular score on that test.

Brenda Cassellius

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius told me in a phone interview that she’s “pleased by the steady progress of Minnesota’s students.” She pointed out that every group of students, as well as the state overall, has increased its graduation rate since 2011 and that gaps are closing. She listed several reasons for this growth, including more focus on graduation, hard work of students and educators, more students taking dual-credit courses (for high school and college), earlier assistance to students who are falling behind, higher standards in math and reading reflected in statewide tests, and a change from age 16 to 17 when dropping out is permitted. Cassellius believes that her goal of 90 percent graduation (it’s 81 percent now) by 2020 “will be hard work, but it’s doable.”

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher union, shares Cassellius’ enthusiasm. In a press release, Specht explained: “The steady rise of the graduation rates is a credit to the hard work of Minnesota students, parents, educators and policymakers. There’s still much more to do, but we’re slowly closing gaps by race and poverty and for English learners. The trends are good.”

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, is not celebrating. He wrote: “While it’s nice to see graduation rates increasing, this measurement no longer has any meaning in Minnesota. When the state eliminated the requirement in 2013 for students to demonstrate basic skills in reading, writing and math to earn a high school diploma, it severely undercut the value of a Minnesota diploma – which historically was something our students and parents could take pride in. It also eliminated an important measurement that employers use to confirm that high school graduates are competent in key subject areas. Celebrating an increase in the graduation rate today is like claiming victory in a game where no one’s keeping score.”

Weaver also noted: “Minnesota has the lowest graduation rates among black and Hispanic students in the nation. We should be focused on addressing that tragedy rather than celebrating hollow ‘improvements.’”

Sarah Radosevich, a policy research analyst for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, wrote that the new data “may be a reason for cautious optimism, but we need more information.” She also pointed to a Minnesota Public Radio analysis of U.S. Department of Education data on the 2012-13 Minnesota graduation rates, showing that, as Radosevich explained, “Minnesota has the worst or second-worst graduation rates in the nation for students of color.”

I’ve checked that MPR analysis and agree that it’s accurate, though it’s based on 2013 graduates. MDE’s new report is for 2014 graduates. Radosevich concluded, “I genuinely hope we are improving – but I’m not convinced yet, and even if we are, we can’t take our foot off the pedal. “

I think that graduation rate increases are the result of improvements in schools and changes in the state law. It will be important to watch trends in high school graduation rates and in percentages of students who must take remedial courses on entering Minnesota’s colleges and universities.


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