Lawmakers should stick with a compromise they reached last year on high-school graduation requirements, instead of upending statewide testing policy yet again.
The Washington Legislature negotiated a sweeping compromise last year to ensure that a single, high-stakes standardized test would not keep students from graduating from high school. And it also preserved the test’s usefulness as a way to gauge how well the school system is serving students, identifying perhaps where equity issues were unaddressed.
Now, barely six months after that deal became law, some lawmakers are already working to dismantle it. They are pushing new legislation to eliminate the few remaining ties between standardized tests and earning a high school diploma.
Listening to Monday’s committee testimony in support of Senate Bill 6144, you would think last year’s deal never happened — that a child’s entire future in Washington state still hinges solely on how they perform one day on a statewide exam.
This is far from accurate. At the same time, completely delinking the state’s standardized tests — which schools must administer under federal rules — from graduation requirements would be a mistake, potentially eroding the work Washington’s school system has done to establish consistent, high academic standards over the past decade.
The Legislature should press pause and give last year’s plan time to work. Tying standardized tests to graduation, however loosely, helps ensure students take them seriously, which leads to better data about how well our school system is serving students. These metrics will be crucial as lawmakers try to gauge the effects of the billions of new state dollars they are investing in public schools, while helping them identify and tackle lingering achievement gaps between students of different income levels, backgrounds and ethnicities.
Already, the Legislature has taken considerable steps toward making standardized tests less of a barrier to graduation. Last year’s compromise law eliminated the requirement that students pass a state end-of-course exam in biology, while keeping the mandate that students show proficiency in math and English language arts. Significantly, the plan moves the high-stakes tests in these subjects from 11th grade to 10th grade, giving struggling students an extra year to take remedial coursework and pass an alternative, locally designed test to show their knowledge in the subject.
Passing the local coursework and the local exam still allows students to graduate, even if they never pass the statewide test. These alternative courses can include career and technical education classes.
Students in the classes of 2014 to 2018 can also apply for a waiver from the testing requirements if they meet all other standards for graduation and are pursuing post high-school opportunities, such as college or the military. Relatively few students took advantage of this option last year: The state granted 208 waivers from the math test requirement, and another 203 waivers from the English language arts testing requirement. Only a handful of applications were not granted; state officials say those are still under review.
These numbers suggest that many students who aren’t graduating are not held back by a standardized test alone. Most likely, they also are missing credits or other required coursework.
What is certain is students do not take these tests seriously if they don’t shape their path toward graduation in some way. In 2015, when Washington schools administered the new Smarter Balanced English language arts test to high school juniors for the first time, the tests had no bearing on whether those students graduated. That year, about half of 11th graders opted out of taking the tests entirely.
Low participation skews the student-performance data lawmakers and school officials rely on to determine whether they are meeting kids’ needs. It also limits how effective the tests can be in guiding students’ coursework in 11th and 12th grade to help them improve academically — one of the key goals of administering the test to sophomores instead of juniors.
Rather than toss out the entire plan the Legislature worked to develop last year, lawmakers should keep it in place with one addition: Continue letting students apply for waivers from the testing requirements. Making the appeals process permanent will help ensure otherwise proficient students don’t slip through the cracks, missing out on a diploma simply because they struggle at taking tests.
Lawmakers have repeatedly changed testing requirements for high school students in recent years — a complaint raised by some who testified Monday in support of delinking standardized tests from graduation.
But reneging on a plan passed a mere six months ago would only perpetuate that same cycle of confusion.
The Legislature should avoid upending the state’s testing policy, choosing instead to build upon the good foundation it has already laid.