Minnesota Weighs Profile of Learning’s Fate

By Ann Bradley — May 12, 1999 4 min read

Gov. Jesse Ventura spoke out strongly in favor of Minnesota’s embattled high school graduation standards last week, while state legislators tried to craft a compromise to address complaints about the new system.

The Profile of Learning, as the requirements are called, just took effect for students entering 9th grade last fall. But lawmakers already are considering making major changes to the profile, which has been nearly a decade and millions of dollars in development.

For Minnesota, which until a few years ago had no statewide testing, the introduction of state standards has followed a difficult path.

In February, the House voted to scrap the Profile of Learning, in favor of a return to traditional coursework requirements for a diploma. The Senate last month approved a less drastic bill that still would make significant changes to the profile. The bills are now before a conference committee.

Mr. Ventura criticized lawmakers for their haste in modifying a brand-new program and argued that the profile raises expectations for students.

“The legislature came over here and spent how many years and how many dollars to attempt to implement this, and now without even attempting to let it run its course for what, six months, you’ve got the House saying, ‘Throw it all out,’ that there’s nothing good out of this thing, throw it all out and chalk it all up to what, bad legislation?” Mr. Ventura, who was elected last fall on the Reform Party ticket, told local reporters.

The governor also said that a “vocal minority” was trying to torpedo the Profile of Learning. This spring, critics of the performance-oriented graduation standards have protested at the state Capitol, charging that the requirements are an infringement on local control.

State lawmakers, who have put work on the K-12 education budget on hold to resolve the issue, must do so by May 18, when the legislature adjourns.

The profile also has attracted the same complaints about “big government” from conservative parents and activists as the federal Goals 2000 and school-to-work programs.

Assessing Knowledge

Part of the dispute over the Profile of Learning stems from its complexity, many Minnesotans say. Instead of racking up course credits, students are required to complete work in 24 of 48 “high standards,” organized in 10 learning areas, in order to graduate. They also must pass a basic-skills test given in the 8th grade.

Students’ progress toward meeting the state standards is to be assessed with locally designed performance packages. But some districts, pressed for time, have simply adopted sample packages created by the state.

The graduation standards are geared toward examining what students know and what they can do with that information. In science, for example, they might be asked to model the path of a comet near a planet. In mathematics, they might analyze alternative plans for retirement savings to determine which would make a better investment.

Teacher Complaints

In its current form, the Profile of Learning is highly unpopular with teachers. A January poll of 603 teachers sponsored by Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, found that 63 percent of teachers opposed the graduation requirements as now written. Only 30 percent supported the requirements.

“This is a big deal in Minnesota,” said Sandra Peterson, a co-president of the union. “And it has been a big deal all year. It’s one of the most volatile issues that we have had to deal with.”

The union is calling on the legislature either to fix the profile or get rid of it, and to delay holding students accountable for meeting the requirements until more kinks are worked out.

Teachers haven’t had adequate opportunities to learn how to write performance assessments and score them reliably, Ms. Peterson said.

Some of the state packages that districts used instead, she said, weren’t well-crafted, didn’t fit in with local curricula, and “had a lot of trite information or tasks that do not apply to that district.”

Teachers also are balking at the paperwork and record keeping associated with monitoring student progress. The state is developing software to keep track of records, but educators say progress has been too slow.

“We would definitely like to see a state-supported common record-keeping system for the profile,” said Bob Ostlund, the president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and the superintendent of the 3,100-student Shakopee district. “We think it needs to be standardized district to district.”

Mr. Ostlund predicted that lawmakers would in fact decide to hold off on requiring students to complete the profile requirements.

It’s also considered likely that the names of the profile’s 10 learning areas--which critics have described as vague and confusing--will be changed from such terms as “people and cultures” to social studies, and that the number of areas in which students would have to complete work will be reduced from the current 24.

But if the legislature decides to change things more drastically, backing away from the state’s decades-long effort to introduce accountability and higher standards could have long-term negative effects, some educators say.

“To pull the rug out from underneath this whole process--I think teachers are going to say, ‘There’s nothing stable here,’ ” said Peg Swanson, a school board member in Orono and the president of the Minnesota School Boards Association. “I just hold my breath and hope that cool heads prevail.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Minnesota Weighs Profile of Learning’s Fate