Biology exam reprieve helps at least 66 Snohomish County students

EVERETT — Dozens of Snohomish County students benefited from state lawmakers’ decision earlier this summer to not require high school seniors to pass a biology exam to graduate.

There were at least 66 students in local high schools who were able to get their diploma after the change in state law. That does not include the county’s largest district, Edmonds, which did not provide numbers for this story.

The Legislature on June 30 unanimously approved the bill that let students off the hook for the science test. The class of 2017 was to be the first that needed to pass it to get their diplomas. The new rule delays that graduation requirement until 2021.

Before they knew the law would change, students at risk of not graduating started working on alternative options to get their diplomas, according to multiple local districts. They took college admission tests such as the SAT or ACT, or gathered collections of work to prove their proficiency. Others arranged to attempt the state biology exam a second time.

In Lake Stevens, five students who had not met graduation requirements on their first attempt were offered the chance to walk with their classmates if they agreed to continue in school, meet the requirements, take the exam again and submit a collection of work. Three of the students walked, and two did not. However, they all earned diplomas after the state dropped the biology requirement, spokeswoman Jayme Taylor said.

Fifteen Marysville students did not pass the science exam and would have been at risk of not graduating solely based on that requirement; they had their other credits and passed state tests for English and math. Several of them were on track to graduate with alternatives or planned to retake the test before they learned the requirement had been waived, district spokeswoman Emily Wicks said.

For smaller school districts, the change in state law may have noticeably nudged up graduation rates. For Sultan, it brought the graduating class from 118 students to 122. In Darrington, two of 32 grads benefited from waiving the biology requirement.

Groups such as the State Board of Education have argued for the elimination of biology and other testing requirements, emphasizing a need for more diverse options to allow students to prove they are ready to graduate.

The exam created “anxiety for both students and families concerning earning the diploma, graduation ceremonies, as well as the student’s future,” according to the state board.

The Washington Education Association, the union representing teachers across the state, also urged lawmakers to ditch passing the exam to earn a diploma. A WEA spokesman called delaying the year the science exam counts toward graduation “a partial temporary fix.” The union wants to drop state exams as a graduation requirement altogether.

“High school graduation should not be dependent on one single test,” WEA spokesman Rich Wood said. “It’s just a bad policy. It doesn’t help kids.”

Prior to the change in law, state officials estimated that 3,300 Washington students had not passed the biology test. That was about 4 percent of last year’s high school seniors.

Legislators also decided to move the standardized tests for English and math from 11th grade to 10th grade, allowing more time for students to meet those requirements if they don’t pass on the first attempt. Other options are available to show proficiency, such as submitting scores from college placement tests or grade comparisons for specific subjects. The new rules eliminate the previous alternative of collecting work samples from classes.

Federal law requires students to take English, math and science tests in high school, but does not mandate that such tests be rolled into graduation requirements, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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