House, Senate narrow differences on testing requirements

OLYMPIA — As graduation season nears an end, lawmakers moved a critical step closer Monday to making it possible for students to get a diploma even if they failed to pass required tests in English, math or biology.

The House Education Committee approved a bill that would keep in place a requirement that students pass the English and math tests to graduate and provide those who fail with a means of asking the superintendent of public instruction for an exemption.

Regarding biology, the legislation would suspend the graduation requirement until 2021 when a new science assessment would be used.

The version of House Bill 2224 approved Monday is the latest compromise between the House and Senate on the role of high stakes tests in determining who gets a diploma.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House do not want to link any of the three tests from the graduation requirements. Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, are willing to set aside the biology requirement but resist severing ties with English and math.

While those differences persist, committee members said Monday they hope they’re nearly done dueling.

“This is a good compromise with the roadblocks we’ve run into with the other chamber,” said Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, the prime sponsor of the bill.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, the ranking Republican on the education panel, said it was “absolutely appalling” the state relies on the high-stakes tests to determine a student’s future. He expressed frustration the Republican-led Senate would not vote on a House bill severing the ties between the tests and graduation.

“We are way, way over-thinking this,” he said, noting the bill “does create a pathway but not a perfect one.”

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, one of the lead GOP negotiators, said Monday he is “encouraged by the conversation” and “optimistic” they will result in changes that maintain objective standards while providing students a way to demonstrate the requisite proficiency of subject matter.

A linchpin in the deal is the appeal process for students who fail to pass the math or English language tests, or both. It would apply retroactively for the graduating classes of 2014, 2015, 2016 and this year. It also would apply to those graduating in 2018 and 2019.

As proposed, a student, their parent or guardian, or their principal can initiate an appeal to the superintendent of a school district who in turn can decide which ones are kicked up to Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal for a decision.

Under the bill, Reykdal can only approve an appeal if it is clear “the student more likely than not has the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the minimum high school graduation standards” and “has the skills necessary to successfully achieve the college or career goals” in their High School and Beyond Plan.

The bill lists 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 may also be considered a reason for issuing a waiver.

Under the proposed law, those in the classes of 2014-17 can seek an expedited appeal if they met all other graduation requirements at the time, except passage of one or more of the tests.

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.”

This bill does a number of other things affecting students’ academic journey.

One of those is to give the mathematics and English language arts exams in the 10th grade — it is currently given in the 11th grade — starting in the 2017-18 school year.

Some students will pass and be able to clear away a graduation requirement sooner. Those who do not pass will gain time to retake the test or pursue alternatives such as completing a course in a subject area that earns them credit in high school and college.

Hundreds of students could be affected by the outcome of this year’s negotiations. 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.

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

Time has expired, which is why this fight is flaring up again.

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

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