High school graduation testing rules stymie state lawmakers

OLYMPIA — With graduation ceremonies days away at most public high schools, students around the state are awaiting action by state lawmakers that would allow them to receive their diplomas.

These are seniors who have not passed standardized tests covering reading and writing, mathematics, and biology as required by the state in order to graduate.

Enter lawmakers. There’s bipartisan support for easing the stakes but sharp disagreement between the House and Senate on how far to go this year.

On Thursday, the state House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1046 to permanently sever the link between all of the tests and graduation. Students will still take the tests with the results used to assess academic progress without impeding their ability to get a diploma, supporters said.

This is the third time the House passed this bill: once each in regular session, the first special session and now the second extra session.

It will now go to the state Senate where the Republican-led majority has been willing to suspend the requirement for the biology test but not the other two. The GOP has its bill and isn’t voting on the House offering.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, a member of the House Education Committee, said the Senate approach isn’t fair to those who passed biology but not the math or English language arts exams.

“We don’t want to delay only a portion. It is time that we have a real solution,” she said Thursday after the House bill advanced on an 89-5 vote. “Let’s de-link those tests that should never have been tied to the graduation requirement.”

And not only will students benefit, she said, but the state can save roughly $40 million from being spent on such things as remedial instruction and re-testing to help students attain a passing score.

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, said the House bill gets rid of an “unnecessary added stress” on students.

“Studies all support the notion that there’s no direct link between the quality of education and a student’s ability to pass the test, and it is not an overall indicator of a student’s academic growth,” he said.

State Sen. Hans Zeiger, chairman of the Senate education committee, said the Legislature should act on the biology test right way because there’s clear agreement. After that, lawmakers can dive into discussions on the other exams.

“We’re open to ideas as to how we can save time and money on testing. There is room for a compromise position,” he said. “The message we’ve gotten from the House is it’s all or nothing. That’s not something we’re ready to jump on board with.”

This is not a new fight. Two years ago, Democrats in the House and Senate sought to de-link all the tests and GOP senators resisted. The 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.

Business and education-reform leaders have and continue to oppose any relaxing of the requirement. They argue the use of high-stakes tests is helping increase graduation rates across the state. They worry breaking the link will put more graduates at risk of leaving high school unable to demonstrate basic reading, writing, and math concepts.

Existing rules could keep hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, students from obtaining a diploma.

At the beginning of May, 5,875 students had not achieved a passing score on one or more of the assessments, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Of those, 3,302 hadn’t passed biology, 1,603 were missing English language arts and 970 needed math. And some of those students also lacked enough credits to graduate. Updated figures for the entire state were not immediately available.

In Snohomish County, the number of affected students in each district ranges from a handful to a few dozen.

For example, in the Everett School District, 61 students had not met the biology requirement as of the first week of May. Another 38 students needed to pass the math test and 34 needed to pass the reading exam. District officials expect those numbers will decline because students still have time to be tested in those subjects before graduation.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, Ortiz-Self and other Democratic lawmakers met Thursday afternoon to ponder options for reaching an agreement with their Senate colleagues.

“We are going to try to figure out what we can do and what we can do quickly and hopefully we can fix this,” she said, adding she’s been hearing from concerned students and parents urging a change in the law.

“They care. When it comes down to the wire and they can’t cross the stage, yeah, they care,” she said.

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

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