High schoolers may not need to pass biology test to graduate

OLYMPIA — A state requirement that high school students pass a biology exam in order to graduate would be suspended under an agreement announced Thursday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The deal, if approved by the full House and Senate, clears the way for seniors who met every requirement except passing the test to receive their diploma.

Also under the accord, the state will continue requiring students to achieve a minimum score on standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics but provide a new path for those who fail one or both of those tests to still graduate.

It would be an expedited appeal process culminating in the superintendent of public instruction deciding if a student demonstrated enough knowledge in those subject areas to be exempted from the testing requirement.

Hundreds of students around the state may immediately benefit from this accord. At the start of May, 5,875 students had not passed one or more of the required tests, including 3,302 still needing to pass the biology test, according to the state superintendent’s office.

Specifics will be amended into House Bill 2224 which the House Education Committee approved Monday. Votes in the House and Senate won’t occur until lawmakers are in Olympia next week.

“Today, a cloud of uncertainty is lifted and a brighter future is in grasp for thousands of high school seniors across the state who are anxiously waiting for the Legislature to act,” said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chair of the House Education Committee, in a statement.

“Linking high-stakes tests to graduation is a deeply flawed policy,” she said. “The bipartisan agreement reached today supports each and every child by recognizing alternative pathways to earn a high school diploma that will allow them to take the next step toward realizing their college and career goals.”

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the vice chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, who helped negotiate the final wording with Democratic and Republican members of the House, said the deal will “maintain academic rigor and objective educational standards, while giving teachers more flexibility and students more paths to learn and show what they know.”

For years, Washington lawmakers have been split on the value of high-stakes tests in improving student achievement.

Two years ago, this policy face-off kept lawmakers in session until July 9 when Senate Republicans agreed to a two-year delay in the biology test requirement proposed by Democratic senators.

The deal announced Thursday is a compromise between those lawmakers wanting to decouple all three tests from the state’s graduation requirements and those willing to do so with the exam in biology but not English language arts or math. Much of the wording is identical, or very similar, to what is in HB 2224.

Under the agreement, use of the state’s biology assessment as a graduation requirement would be delayed until the graduating class of 2021 when a more comprehensive science exam is expected.

The expedited appeal process would apply retroactively for the graduating classes of 2014, 2015, 2016 and this year. It also would be available for students in the class of 2018 who may be in danger of not passing the English or math exams.

As proposed, school district officials would decide which appeals are sent to Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. Under the agreement, much like the current bill, Reykdal can only approve appeals if it is clear the students have the necessary skills and knowledge to meet graduation standards and also have shown they are able to achieve the college or career goals in their High School and Beyond Plan.

The agreement will list several ways students can prove themselves, including completing a college level class in the relevant subject or demonstrating success in a job. Getting admitted to college or receiving a scholarship for higher education are two other ways. Enlistment in the military also may be considered a reason for issuing a waiver.

Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, students who have not met the standard on the mathematics or English assessment must take and pass “a locally determined course in the content area in which the student was not successful.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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