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ACT to replace former pre-graduation exams

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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.

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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.

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