In the Spotlight

News & Features

The Birth of the Guinea Pig Curriculum
by Bill Wareham
February 7, 2000

Frequently Asked Questions

How can my child pass the Basic Standards tests and fail 8th grade English or math class?
Passing the Basic Standards tests and passing individual courses are two different things. Passing the Basic Standards tests indicates that your child has a minimum level of competency in reading, mathematics and writing. All of our children need to surpass the minimum and are required to pass courses and complete High Standards in order to graduate from high school.

How do students complete standards?
Students complete a standard when they complete all of the work locally required for that standard. Student achievement of the High Standards is assessed by locally designed assignments that, taken together as a "package," show whether a student has learned and can apply the knowledge and skills outlined in the standard. These assignments ask students to apply their knowledge in real-world situations.

Do the Graduation Standards reduce the emphasis on traditional academics?
NO. The Graduation Standards do not diminish academic content, but raise the emphasis on application of that knowledge. In order to succeed, our children need to do more than memorize facts and regurgitate them for a test. Hands-on application allows students to show and apply what they have learned. Knowing and doing must go hand in hand. Research in many fields shows that application or "hands-on" activities are an excellent way to learn and remember what you have learned.

My child is in elementary school. How do Graduation Standards effect my child?
During kindergarten through eighth grade, your child’s work is measured against the Preparatory High Standards. Third and fifth grade students are tested in reading and mathematics to measure their achievement relative to the High Standards. Fifth grade students are also tested in writing.

How will the Graduation Standards impact Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other gifted students?
Implementation of the High Standards opens new options and time for advanced or in-depth studies. No student will be denied access to AP, IB or other gifted programming because of the High Standards. The rigor of advanced classes actually increases the ability of students to complete performance packages that address more than one standard at a time; many of our top students will complete standards outside of school or even before they reach high school.

How will the Graduation Standards impact struggling students?
All of our students must complete the Basic and High Standards to graduate from a public high school. The statewide tests will help schools identify those students, in their early years of education, who need extra help in mastering basic skills. Students who have trouble memorizing now have an opportunity to apply their knowledge; the application may also help them remember more details. Graduation Standards provide new options for our students. High expectations are the key to learner success. International researchers have made it clear that students must face high challenges and be given opportunities to apply what they have learned. The High Standards do just that. Do not underestimate our kids. They can do it if we support them.

Is it true there will be no grades and class rank under the Graduation Standards?
As under the old requirements, the assignment of grades and class rank is a local decision made by local school districts. The state requires students be given a score of 4-1 on the performance packages they complete towards the High Standards.

Source: Department of Children, Families, and Learning
See more
State education commissioner Christine Jax says she'll ask the Legislature to delay final implementation of the state's new graduation standards for two years. She'll get little argument from the class of 2002. Those students, this year's tenth-graders, are the first required to complete both basic-skills tests and higher standards known as the "Profile of Learning."   Minnesota Public Radio decided last fall to see how the new system is working for the students, parents and teachers on the front lines of the state's experiment with graduation standards.

Much of what they found can be summed up in the phrase "guinea pig kids," three words that turned up over and over through the five-month investigation. The phrase reflects pervasive uncertainty over whether the standards are ready to be imposed on Minnesota students.

STATE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS trace the origins of Minnesota's new graduation standards to the early 1970s. Mary Lillesve, a manager in the Department of Children, Families and Learning, says it all began with mounting questions among school officials about what a high school diploma represented.
Lillesve: It was that question: "What does a diploma mean?". And what we found in all of our rules was that what a diploma meant was sitting in a seat a certain amount of time in certain classes.
By the late 1980s, Minnesota wasn't the only state asking questions about education. Educators nationwide were beginning to talk about replacing seat-time requirements with some kind of standards for what students should know. This movement took off in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation at Risk." The report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned the United States was falling behind in preparing its children for the kind of service and technology jobs that had come to dominate the economy.

Diane Cirksena, a standards specialist at the Department of Children, Families and Learning, says schools had become too focused on getting students into college, figuring those headed straight for the workforce would get all the on-the-job training they needed. But she says what were once considered low skill jobs now require a basic understanding of computers and other technologies.
Cirksena: That way of life doesn't work anymore. Because the kids who do that, who go into the mines, or Raft Meatpacking or John Deere, have to have a very high level of problem solving, reading, writing and math.
Minnesota's own version of "A Nation at Risk" was released in 1988 in the form of a legislative auditor's report that said the educational advantage the state traditionally enjoyed had been eroding. Among its conclusions: Minnesota's high school academic standards are too lax.

The report caught the attention of state business groups, which were already on alert after A Nation at Risk. Win Borden headed the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce through the 1980s.
Borden: We got a little smug and we found out that children in other parts of the world were spending a lot more time in the classroom than were our kids, and the objective evidence was that our children were not doing nearly as well as others were in terms of math and science and reading scores, and that was kind of a shocking wake-up call.
As business joined the academics pushing for reform, the question became not whether education would change, but "how?".

Nationally, states mostly turned to standardized testing to measure whether students were meeting educational objectives. Minnesota settled on that tack too. The state devised basic-skills tests in reading, writing and math that, beginning this year, students must pass to graduate. Students get a first crack at these high-stakes tests in reading and math in eighth grade. The writing test is given in tenth grade.

In addition to these high-stakes tests, the state tests students in third and fifth grades to make sure they are on track to meet the basic skills requirements.

But state school officials concluded through town meetings and discussions with teacher and parent groups that setting minimum standards would not be enough to push achievement higher for the bulk of students who could easily pass those basic skills. Children, Families and Learning's Diane Cirksena says that realization led to the critical decision to complement the basic skills tests with the high standards known as Profile of Learning.
Cirksena: The articulation of that two-tiered system seemed to get us around a corner of how to do standards without dumbing it down.
The Profile outlines 48 standards in 10 learning areas, such as the ability to read, view and listen critically, understand and apply scientific concepts and solve problems using math.

Students must demonstrate achievement in 24 of the 48 standards to graduate. Teachers measure achievement through projects called performance packages; hands-on projects that can take weeks or months to complete. The state has written model performance packages for all of the standards, but allows districts to modify them or create their own to fit in with the rest of the curriculum.

As the standards moved closer to implementation, they became the target of increasing criticism, focused mostly on the Profile of Learning. In October 1998, just a month into the Profile's full implementation in the classroom, several hundred opponents rallied at the state Capitol. They included Renee Doyle, who had resigned from the Maple River School Board in protest over the Profile, which she considered a bureaucratic mess that would bring down the quality of education.
Doyle: Never before have so many people concerned about basic educational freedom gathered together to let our state know that we will no longer be the last to know, we will no longer be deceived by pages of bureaucratic-developed propaganda that we can't even understand, and we will not pay the $250 million to fund a program that enslaves our children to the state.
School officials admit the Profile is the source of much confusion, but say they're working to help teachers, administrators and parents understand. They say they're seeing fewer problems in the second year than they saw in the first.

Mark Davison is director of the Office of Educational Accountability, an agency within the University of Minnesota charged with monitoring achievement under the new standards. The first report following last year's baseline study is due out this month. Davison says most test scores improved across all gender, racial and socio-economic categories. Eighth-grade basic-skills math scores were the exception. And as for the Profile, Davison says good objective data is at least two years out, when the first class of Profile-trained students are currently scheduled to graduate.
Davison: I don't think there's cause for alarm and there are things to watch immediately, like the graduation rate and like the test scores coming out of the third, fifth and eighth grade, and tenth grade now. But I think beyond those things, the information will roll out gradually.
The assurances of experts offer little consolation to many parents who worry that their children who graduate in 2002 and beyond won't be as prepared as their predecessors. Libby Goodsell has three children in the North St. Paul school district.
Goodsell: My kids are the guinea pigs. And somehow I feel with as much disagreement as there has been over the standards, the kind of response given back as they've been implemented, I don't think it's fair for my kids to bear the brunt of this.
School officials say while they're confident the new system is working, they're open to tinkering with it. Education commissioner Christine Jax's proposal to delay final implementation for two years would make the class of 2004 the first to graduate under the new standards.