Washington has remained one of just a dozen states that require students to pass high-stakes exams to earn a high-school diploma.

That’s about to change: Starting with the class of 2020, high schoolers will no longer have to clear the standardized tests to graduate on time. They still must take the federally mandated tests at least once during high school, but a new state law may remove some of the anxiety that tied a student’s performance on those tests to their chances of ever getting a diploma.

Instead, the state is offering different ways for students to show they’re ready to be done with high school and move on with their education or work.

Why the change?

For years, Washington state lawmakers debated whether to permanently end a requirement that students pass a trio of English language arts, math and science exams before they can graduate. The requirement has been in place since 2008, and since then, on-time graduation rates have improved for nearly every student group and the share of graduates enrolling in remedial classes in college have declined.

Regardless, legislation to nix the requirement secured broad support this year from the state superintendent’s office, education-advocacy groups and organizations representing parents, teachers, principals and school boards — many of whom argued no single test should deny students their diplomas.

The proposal won unanimous support from lawmakers, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law in early May.


But what do the changes mean for the approximately 92,000 seniors currently in Washington high schools?

For the class of 2019, students who did not pass the state exams can now apply for a waiver — formally known as an “expedited assessment appeal” — from the graduation requirement. They must, however, show their readiness for life after high school in alternative ways. Examples include:

  • Completion of a college-level class
  • Admission into a college or university
  • Award of a scholarship
  • Enlistment in a branch of the military

The state provides more details about those options and a list of frequently asked questions about the waiver process on its website. As of last week, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction had received more than 1,000 waivers for the class of 2019.

Of that class, nearly 11,000 students have not passed the English language-arts exam, about 23,250 have not passed the math exam and about 9,750 have not passed both.

The state education department encourages students in the class of 2019 who have not passed the Smarter Balanced tests to ask their school counselor or principal about the waiver.

For the class of 2020 and beyond, high schoolers must show their readiness for college or a career through what the state’s calling a “graduation pathway.” The options include:

  • Still passing the Smarter Balanced tests in English and math
  • Earning college credit in English and math
  • Scoring above a state standard on college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT
  • Completing a series of career and technical education courses

The state provides a more complete list of the new pathways, with examples for students with disabilities, on its website.