OLYMPIA — The road to graduation is set to get a little less bumpy for high school students in Washington.
A bill heading to the governor’s desk would eliminate a graduation requirement to pass standardized tests in English and mathematics, starting next school year.
The legislation cleared the House on a 96–0 vote Monday, its final legislative hurdle. Having passed the Senate earlier 48–0, it is on its way to Gov. Jay Inslee for his expected signature.
“It just makes logical sense,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Sells, of Everett, a former teacher. “You’re making a judgment based on one standardized test that was not designed to make those judgments. That’s wrong.”
House Bill 1599 would permanently sever the link between a passing score on the assessments and the state’s graduation requirements, a bond rooted in reforms of the early 1990s and later made law.
It is viewed as a means to ensure students graduate with a minimum level of skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, only a handful states are left with such a rule, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. And for the past few years, Washington lawmakers have debated getting rid of it.
Terry Bergeson has come full circle on this issue.
In the mid-90s, she helped develop the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, while serving as executive director of the Washington State Commission on Student Learning. Then, as state public schools chief, she embraced requiring high school students pass the reading and writing WASL or an alternative assessment to earn a diploma. Her backing of the WASL might have been a factor in 2008 when she lost her bid for a fourth term to Randy Dorn.
Her mind has changed in the past decade as the federal Department of Education required elementary and secondary students take more tests and penalized schools whose students didn’t make enough academic progress.
“Assessments should be used as a feedback loop for learning,” she said. “But the feds increased the number of required tests. And it has been much more punitive. People are now testing too much. It’s probably a good thing that the (state) lawmakers de-linked it.”
Under House Bill 1599, high school students will still have to take the assessments. If they don’t pass, they can try again if they wish. Regardless, results will be used to assess academic progress without impeding anyone’s ability to get a diploma, supporters said.
This legislation also revamps the rules and expands the routes students can take to graduation.
Current law requires that students earn a Certificate of Academic Achievement or a Certificate of Individual Achievement to graduate from a public high school.
This entails completing enough credits, in most cases 24. And it means meeting proficiency standards on those required state tests or an approved alternative such as the SAT or ACT, or on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam. Earning college credit through a dual credit program like Running Start is another option.
Students also must complete what’s known as a High School and Beyond Plan. These are intended to steer students into those courses that will prepare them best for college or a career, whatever they choose.
House Bill 1599 would phase out the certificates of academic and individual achievement. To graduate, students will still to need complete the required credits and achieve proficiency on those state tests or an alternative assessment. It also creates new paths such as passing an industry-based credential exam or passing the U.S. Armed Forces vocational aptitude test.
To be sure a student knows the options, schools are going to need to beef up High School and Beyond Plans for each student.
“We think it’s a really big deal,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said. “We will always have these assessments. You still have to be career-ready. We have a new expectation. It’s not just de-link and good luck everybody. It’s de-link and do you have a plan?”
The Washington Education Association, the largest statewide union of classroom teachers, backed the bill.
“This bill does a great job helping students for whom the test was a barrier to graduate,” said Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, which represents certificated teachers in the Everett School District.
Requirements to pass classes and earn 24 credits aren’t going away, he said.
“That is a better indicator that a student is ready for the real world than one test,” he said.
There are those with concerns about how the changes will play out.
Not every school district will have the resources to offer students every option envisioned in the bill, they said. And they are not convinced all of the proposed paths demand as much from students as do the standards for those tests.
“We are supportive of keeping a rigorous, objective measure of career and college readiness as a part of the high school diploma to ensure students are ready for their next step after high school,” said Julia Warth, director of policy and research for the League of Education Voters.
“Our main concern is with the proposed multiple pathways to graduation, some of which do not appear to be of comparable rigor to the state assessment, and each other,” she said. “We are also concerned with whether students will have equitable access to all of the pathways … as many of them are based on access to AP or IB course offerings, which not all districts offer, or additional assessments, which may have additional costs.”
Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who has backed severing the tests from the requirements, is worried that schools might lack adequate staff to help students navigate the choices and make course corrections as needed.
“The problem with all the pathways is we don’t have enough counselors in the school system to get them all the way through,” he said. “In my opinion, it will be a failure because we have a lack of counselors.”