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Two-Tiered Diploma in Minneapolis Arouses Minority Opposition

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Minneapolis--Minority leaders here are criticizing a school-district proposal that would deny standard diplomas to seniors who fail "benchmark" tests in reading, writing and mathematics.

But they say they support the use of the tests to gauge students' academic performance.

The proposal, presented to the board this month, recommends that beginning in 1988, the district grant two kinds of diplomas--a normal one for students who have passed the tests and a "completion diploma" for students who have done the required course work but do not have satisfactory test scores. The plan would also use the benchmark tests, phased in over a period of years, as a key criterion for holding students back in earlier grades.

A Skills-Assessment Program

The proposal was made by a 45-member committee assigned to develop guidelines on possible uses of benchmark testing--a skills-assessment program adopted by the Minneapolis board last year as a way of determining acceptable academic performance.

"I believe awarding students unable to pass the test a special diploma is condescending and creates the possiblity of establishing a lower track for provisional students," said Rosemary Christensen, director of Indian education for the Minneapolis schools. "Since it's likely that Indian and other minority students would be disproportionately represented in this lower track, I believe it could really create a problem."

But Ms. Christensen and other minority leaders support the committee's proposal to use "benchmark" tests and periodic reviews of students' records to determine whether they should be promoted. They also support the expansion of remedial activities that would accompany the new testing program.

Margaret Simmons, education officer for the Minneapolis Urban Coalition, said, however, that she worried that the cutoff levels to pass the test might be too low. Low expectations of minority students has contributed to their academic problems, she said.

'Minimum-Competency' Tests

Eight Minnesota districts have developed "minimum-competency" tests, given to students in their junior year, that must be passed before students may graduate. But thus far no student has been denied a diploma in Minnesota because of a competency test, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Some 17 states, according to Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States, have passed laws or regulations requiring students to pass tests for graduation. Another 22 states have adopted some kind of program to require students to achieve minimum competency, but have stopped short of making it a graduation requirement. The legality of using the examinations as graduation requirements is being tested in the courts.

The report of the Minneapolis school-board committee suggests that the benchmark tests be given in reading and writing each year from kindergarten through the 9th grade. A writing test would be given in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9.

School officials could decide to hold back students they do not think are making satisfactory academic progress at any grade. A formal review of students' academic performance would be required in kindergarten and grades 2, 5, 7, and 9 to assess whether a student is prepared to advance to the next grade. The testing would begin this spring, but decisions on holding students back would be phased in: kindergartners in spring 1984, 2nd and 9th graders in spring 1985, and 5th and 9th graders in spring 1986.

The testing report recommends that the district allocate $485,000 to develop and administer the tests; that $400,000 be spent on staff development; and that $65,000 be spent on evaluating test results.

The report further recommends that the district spend $3.7 million to provide remedial help for the estimated 7,400 students who are expected to need it to pass the tests.

The district is studying about 30 different remediation methods, ac-cording to the report, including summer-school classes, tutorial help, remedial reading and mathematics classes, preschool programs for "high-risk" students, and a full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds identified as having learning difficulties.

The report outlines an appeals process that parents unhappy with the decision to hold their child back may turn to, and ways the district could keep parents informed of their children's progress so they would not be surprised by low test scores.

End to 'Social Promotions'

Minneapolis's superintendent of schools, Richard Green, approves of one part of the committee's report and disapproves of another. He has said he supports benchmark tests and wants to put an end to "social promotions." But he said this month that he opposes the two-diploma idea. "It's a labeling process," he explained. "The public schools may end up contributing to fewer, not more, opportunities in the workplace for students."

The practice of requiring students to pass an "exit test" in order to receive a high-school diploma is currently before the courts. In Florida, U.S. District Judge George Carr is expected to rule shortly on one aspect of Debra P. v. Turlington, a suit filed in 1978 on behalf of nine black students. An earlier court ruling held that the test itself did not discriminate against minority students. The judge will rule next on whether the Florida public schools in fact teach the material that is covered on the test. (See Education Week, March 16, 1983.)

In an Illinois case, Brookhard v. Illinois School Board of Education, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the right of the state to require all students--including those enrolled in special-education programs--to pass a "minimal-competency test," provided the students received adequate advance notice. (See Education Week, January 19, 1983.)

But the court ruled that the 11 students on whose behalf the suit was filed should be granted diplomas without passing the test since they could not return to school for remedial courses without "undue hardship."

And federal courts in Georgia and New York have ruled that similar tests are legal if adequate advance notice and assistance in preparation are provided to students.

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