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Willmar Senior High School student Cody Sander, of Willmar, is taking Mindi Fagerlie's class in algebra and statistics. Fagerlie says she understands her students' frustrations in taking a test in the spring of their junior year that could potentially keep them from graduating. (Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer)

Students and teachers nervous about math test

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local Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Their heads nodded in unison. Yes, the high school juniors know about the math test they must take in April. And no, they don't think it's fair.

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Why isn't it fair? "Because we work so hard in high school, and if we don't pass this test, we don't graduate," said Shea Johnson, 17, one of the juniors who will be taking the new test. "Some people aren't good with tests."

Johnson and several others in Mindi Fagerlie's algebra/statistics class at Willmar Senior High counted themselves among those who "freeze" on tests.

The state eliminated the Basic Skills Test in math, which students previously took in eighth grade. The BST is being replaced this year with the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma math test, given to juniors. It's a high-stakes test -- if they don't pass, they don't graduate.

The GRAD tests in reading, writing and math are part of an effort by the state to increase the value of a high school diploma in Minnesota.

Other students in the classroom said they were concerned about the test, too.

"I'm worried they're not going to prepare us enough," said Thea Abrahamson, 17.

Anya Benson, also a junior, said she wondered how hard the test would be for students like her, who are still learning English.

Alex Vasquez, 16, said he thought people shouldn't be too worried. "I don't think it's going to be that bad," he said. "I don't think they would send us into it if we weren't prepared."

Fagerlie said she understood that the students were frustrated with the idea that a test they take in the spring of their junior year could keep them from graduating.

Fagerlie and other math teachers, joined by Principal Rob Anderson and counselor Leah Oestreich, gathered recently to discuss their own concerns.

They have gone through their textbooks to make sure they cover the information required by state standards, and they will do all they can to prepare their students for the GRAD tests.

Still, they said, the contents of the test and its design worry them, as well as what will happen to students retaking the test in their senior years.

The state won't provide the initial test scores for several months; thus, students won't know if they passed until they are starting their senior year.

The test will include some questions that will count only for the GRAD test score and others that will count only for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II, required by federal law to gauge school district performance. Other questions will be field test questions, which won't be included in either score.

No one will know which questions apply to which score when the students take the test.

"A classroom teacher would never get away with that -- 'Here's your test; we'll let you know next week what counted,'" Anderson said.

This year's juniors have been pioneers in the state's graduation testing program, Anderson said. They were the first to take the GRAD writing test in ninth grade and the GRAD reading test in 10th grade. Now, they'll be the first to face the new math test as juniors.

Last year, only about one-third of Minnesota high school juniors met the state's goals on the MCA-II.

The passing percentage was about one-third for Willmar Senior High, a bit less when juniors in the district's other educational programs were included. Passing percentages in other area school districts ranged from the mid-teens to the low 40s.

The test was not a high-stakes one a year ago, and thus it mattered less to the kids. The same problem was seen with the GRAD reading test, but "once it counted, kids cared," Oestreich said, and the scores went up.

Anderson said they expect to see a similar increase in math scores.

Their teachers are trying to make sure the students understand how critical the test is to their futures. Teacher Stephanie Slagter described herself as "trying to drill it into their heads" about the importance of the test.

To pass the test, students will need to have taken Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry, at a minimum, the Willmar teachers said.

For students who arrive at the senior high with a limited math education, "they're going to have to take math every semester of every year," said Kim Rhody.

Still, they are worried about diligent students whose scores may fall short. "There will be some very decent, hardworking kids who don't pass that test," Rhody said.

Teacher Kathy Meyer said she worried about what that would do their feelings of self-worth.

Oestreich said there's "definitely a concern" that some kids will struggle to pass a junior-level math test and could drop out. There are some students who don't graduate because they didn't pass the less difficult BST tests, she said.

Anderson and the others said that Willmar faces greater challenges than many other schools.

Meyer said the district has more diversity, more non-English speakers and more poverty among its students than the state average.

Anderson said school officials see the diversity in the schools as an asset to the district, but it presents some special challenges when it comes to the state's standardized tests.

Some students arrive with little formal schooling, and some are illiterate in their native language and know no English, he said.

Oestreich said it's possible those students could eventually have a five-year high school plan to help them prepare for life after high school.

It's exciting to work with the students, Meyer said. "They work so hard."

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