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Hearing today will examine math grad requirements

WILLMAR -- Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren is confident that high school juniors will rise to the challenge when they take a new state math test in April. They have to pass it to graduate.

State Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, isn't so sure that the juniors and their schools are ready for the new test yet. He'll conduct a hearing today of the Senate Education Policy Committee to discuss the test and its implications.

"The feedback we're hearing from many educators ... is that thousands of students are at risk and are probably going to fail," he said. "There's an alarm bell going off."

Seagren said schools have known for five years that these tests were coming and should have had ample time to prepare. She attributed the increasing difficulty of the test to the Legislature. "They wanted us to ramp up our rigor," she said.

Wiger agreed that the Legislature wanted to increase graduation standards, but he feels the math tests should be re-examined to bring in "common sense and flexibility." A year may not be enough time for students to improve skills and retake the test, he said.

"I'd like to give school districts flexibility, maybe other options for recognizing achievement," Wiger said. "You can't fault staff or students for a system that doesn't give them enough time or resources."

The graduation test in math was moved from eighth grade to 11th grade "to make sure the kids had studied enough math to be tested," Seagren said.

The state worked carefully with national experts to develop the test, she said, but she acknowledged that the Department of Education has heard from state educators and is paying attention to the feedback.

"We are not wanting to be insensitive to the concerns," she said. "I don't want to give anybody the idea that I'm a cold-hearted bureaucrat."

Students who don't pass on the first test will have a chance to take an online test after taking a six-week remediation course. While the results from the spring test will take some time, the results from the later computer test will be nearly immediate, she said.

Students will have about as many opportunities to retake the math test during their senior year as they had to retake the previous graduation math test, which was first given in eighth grade but offered fewer opportunities for retesting.

An increase in dropouts has been feared in other states with similar programs, but it didn't happen, she said.

"When students have a goal to meet, they will rise to the standard," she said. "We're not used to expecting that of kids, which is sad. ... We can't forget that our kids are competing with the rest of the world."