Last spring, state lawmakers severed the link between state assessments and a high school diploma, adding new options to allow students to demonstrate academic proficiency in different ways.

But as state education officials develop rules for these alternate pathways, they must ensure that each high school diploma certifies a student’s readiness for college, advanced training or work — regardless of where that road may take them. The state cannot continue leaving so many students, particularly students of color, behind.

This year’s graduating class will be able to select from one of eight graduation pathway options, laid out in legislation passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May.

In addition to earning enough credits and completing a High School and Beyond Plan, students must do one of the following to graduate: Demonstrate English and math proficiency by successfully completing dual-credit or transition courses, or by scoring sufficiently on Washington State Assessments, Advanced Placement or other specified exams. Alternately, students may meet the standard by scoring sufficiently on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or by earning two or more high school credits in Career and Technical Education courses that help advance their post-graduation goals.

The Washington State Board of Education will discuss these changes in a community forum in Bremerton on Nov. 5 and intends to finalize the rules in a meeting that week. Board members will host a series of forums next spring for a broader discussion of the adequacy and equity of the pathways as they are laid out in legislation, to report back to lawmakers.

Washington’s shift mirrors a national trend away from high-stakes testing. According to Education Week, only a dozen states require graduating high school students to pass an exit exam, down from more than half of all states in 2002.


Proponents say recognizing alternate pathways will keep more students engaged through graduation, rather than giving up. In King County, nearly 19,000 youth aged 16-24 are neither working nor in school, as The Seattle Times reported last week. Last year’s statewide four-year high school graduation rate was about 81%, with significantly lower rates in some demographic groups.

With only around 40% of the state’s high school students going on to earn college degrees or certifications by their mid-20s, state graduation standards should reflect students’ diverse interests, aptitudes and goals. But that is true only if career-track standards are rigorous enough to meet standards set by prospective employers.

Two decades after George W. Bush warned against “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” it’s as important as ever that each student be inspired, supported and expected to achieve their personal best outcomes.

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Even those students eager to dive straight into employment might reconsider higher education as they gain life experience and adjust to workforce realities. Robust and meaningful graduation standards give them the foundation to do so.

Not every student wants or needs to go to university to have a productive, satisfying career and life, but pathways to graduation must not shortchange student learning. Our students’ and state’s future depend on upholding high graduation standards and helping young people reach those goals.