A bill that would remove the state biology exam as a high-school-graduation requirement has stalled in the state Legislature, putting the diplomas of as many as 2,000 high-school seniors at risk.
A bill that would have allowed roughly 2,000 Washington students to graduate from high school even if they failed a required biology exam has stalled in Olympia, putting many of their diplomas at risk.
This is the first year high-school students in Washington had to pass that exam along with others in reading and math. The 1,948 students passed the reading and math exams but not biology, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Some of those students may still fail to graduate for other reasons, but for many of them, not passing the biology test may be the only barrier keeping them from graduation.
The State Board of Education tried to spare the students that fate. It has pushed to remove the end-of-course biology exam, generally taken in 10th grade, from the list of graduation requirements, saying the exam measures too little of what students are learning in their science classes.
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Washington’s new science standards cover much more than biology, said Ben Rarick, the board’s executive director. To test just one small portion of what students are being asked to learn, he said, is not good policy.
“We believe in maintaining high standards, and we believe that assessments should play a role,” Rarick said. “We have simply moved beyond biology in our state’s science standards.”
But in one of the legislative twists in Olympia this year, the board now opposes the bill that would remove the biology requirement because it also would make more comprehensive changes to the state’s testing system.
The board initially supported a separate bill that addressed just the biology exam, but that proposal never made it out of the House. The House then overwhelmingly passed a bill that did much more than eliminate that one exam. The bill would require students to eventually pass a different, brand-new science test and would allow a student who didn’t pass any of the state tests — in reading and math as well as science — to graduate anyway if the student took and passed extra classes.
That bill now is stalled, too, this time in the Senate. And state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, says that’s not just because budget negotiations are coming down to the wire. Litzow, chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, says he disagrees with what the bill does.
Allowing students to graduate without passing any exams proving they’ve mastered materials, he said, would be like giving them a free pass through high school.
“That does a disservice to the kids,” Litzow said.
He also said that although the biology exam may not represent the full range of what students are being asked to learn in science today, biology is still a key part of what they should know.
Some members of the Senate are ready to talk about the issue, said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. But while the bill gained traction in the House, where it passed 87-7 in May, it died immediately in the Senate because it was referred to a committee that hasn’t met during special sessions, he said.
Billig said he would support a bill to end only the biology test requirement — if anyone suggests it.
Rarick, for one, still hopes that will happen.
“When it gets down to it, I think there might be the will to solve a specific problem with biology,” Rarick said. “I’m being optimistic.”