Crucial Details Omitted from MDE press release on high school graduation rates

The following column appeared in several APG of East Central Mn newspapers during May, 2023


Crucial details omitted from press release on graduation rates


Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to reflect new information provided that corrects inaccuracies previously supplied to the writer.

The Minnesota Department of Education’s April 25 press release about high school graduation rates left out something very important. MDE noted an overall 0.2 percentage point increase in students graduating in four years from 2021 to 2022 (up to 83.6% overall), a 2.5 percentage point increase by American Indian students (up to 61.1%), and a 3.1 percentage point increase by Black students (up to 73.5%) . Hispanic/Latino rates declined by 0.2 of a percentage point. However, MDE did not mention that during the pandemic some districts changed the rules, making it easier to graduate.

Give journalists Josh Verges and Matt Cory credit for explaining in 2021 in a Forum article that Minnesota’s graduation rules were modified in some districts. This month, in conversations with me, some districts confirmed that because of MDE’s pandemic-related recommendations, they converted failing grades to passing, and in two cases, reduced the number of courses required to graduate.

All this matters. We need accurate information about Minnesota’s students and public schools.  We want students not only graduating, but graduating with skills they need to be successful.

Educators,  students, and families faced incredible, new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people worked hard during the pandemic to help students cope. While recognizing that some changes were appropriate during the pandemic, MDE should be clear that in some places, graduating became easier.

Some districts changed these requirements in response to what I believe were MDE’s well-intended recommendations. In 2020, MDE suggested that “Districts should continue to consider the principle of ‘do no harm’ to avoid damage to both students’ future education opportunities and struggles that students and families will experience during this time beyond their control.” (This comes from page 70 of MDE‘s “2020-2021 Planning Guidance from Minnesota Public Schools,” online here,  shared with me by Kevin Burns, MDE communications director.)

To understand what happened during the pandemic, after seeing MDE’s April 25, 2023, press release, I contacted representatives of several districts mentioned in the 2021 article.  This included Jake Von De Linde, director of teaching and learning, Roseville Area Schools.  He confirmed that the district did give 50% credit, instead of zero credit, for missing assignments and temporarily reduced the number of credits required for graduation. District students had to pass the number of courses required by the state.

In 2021, Verges also reported that St. Paul Public Schools, Minnesota’s second largest district, made it easier to graduate by reducing the number of credits required to graduate and by giving students credit for two quarters if they passed one. Erica Wacker, director of St. Paul Public Schools’ office of communications, confirmed this.

She explained the district hadn’t changed “the number of core credits needed” to graduate but had “reduced the number of required elective credits.” She also wrote that in the 2019-20 school year, “in line with the Governor’s directive that distance learning should not impact students’ pathway to graduation and to hold students harmless for circumstances out of their control, all secondary students received a P (Pass) grade, at a minimum, for fourth quarter. A student’s fourth quarter grade was also their final third quarter grade for that class.” She also explained, “No D’s or F’s in high school were given in the 2nd half of 2019 – 2020 school year.”

I also talked with Tony Taschner, communications director for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, which also was mentioned in the Forum article. He confirmed that, during the pandemic, students had the option to take courses on a pass-fail rather than grade basis. He said the district hadn’t changed F’s to “pass.”

Readers can visit Minnesota’s Education Report Card website to find each district’s and charter public school’s graduation rate. You can check with local leadership about whether changes were made in their graduation process.

The slight progress in improving graduation rates that MDE reported should be put in context. Their April 25 statement is here.

In a future column, I’ll describe what some states are doing regarding graduation, which is wiser and more effective.

But for today, two key conclusions: First, we should recognize the hard, creative work many students, educators and families did to get through the pandemic. Second, when reporting on important data like graduation rates, MDE should acknowledge rule changes.


Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: or @joe1949 on Twitter.