Tests may take toll on thousands of students unless state helps

OLYMPIA — Nearly 6,000 high school seniors in Washington began May in danger of not graduating because they had yet to pass at least one of the state’s three required assessment tests.

Many can erase the threat in the coming weeks by taking and passing an exam in mathematics, language arts or biology.

Yet success will still elude a number of those students and that’s got lawmakers charged up and divided on the use of high-stakes tests in determining who gets a diploma.

There’s desire across political party lines in the House and Senate to modify state rules to help the current graduating class. But there’s sharp disagreement between the two chambers on which laws to change. Unable to resolve their differences in regular session, lawmakers remain at odds in the special session that is halfway over.

The House wants to stop requiring students to pass all three tests at some point in their academic journey in order to graduate. A Republican-sponsored bill to decouple those tests from the state’s requirements passed on an 89-4 vote Tuesday.

In the Senate, the Republican majority that has in the past been reticent to ease any testing requirement backs a bill getting rid of the biology test requirement until 2021. That’s when a new science standard will be in place and along with it a new assessment exam. The bill passed on a 45-0 vote Tuesday.

There are no talks planned to reconcile the differences.

If this situation seems familiar, it is. Two years ago, the House also tried to unlink all three tests and GOP senators resisted. 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.

“We’re a little more cautious but I think we’re showing some flexibility with biology,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, chairman of the Senate education committee, on Thursday.

He said he hoped the two chambers could agree right away on axing that exam and then keep talking about broader reforms.

“We need to at least take action on (biology),” he said. “It is May, graduation is coming up and a lot of folks are counting on us to do something.”

But when the House debated its bill Tuesday, members called on the Senate to rethink its position because students are struggling to pass all three tests.

“There are many in the other chamber that would like us to just suspend the biology test,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, the ranking Republican on the House education committee. “We need to look at the entire program and make sure that we treat all students equally.”

The precise number of students in danger of not graduating because of the testing requirement is a moving target.

Students have been and will be taking tests this month and next. Some also are pursuing the alternative provided in the law, which involves preparing a portfolio known as the collection of evidence demonstrating their mastery of material covered in the tests.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reported 5,875 students had not passed one or more of the required tests as of May 2.

Of the total, 3,302 students still needed to pass the biology test, 1,603 were missing language arts and 970 were missing math. Totals include students who had completed all other graduation requirements and ones who had not. Those might be students lacking enough total credits to graduate.

In the Everett School District, 61 students had not met the biology requirement as of this week, down from 126 in March, district officials said. In addition, 38 students still needed to pass the math test and 34 needed to pass the reading exam.

These assessments are valuable in focusing students’ attention on a subject and tracking their academic progress, they said. Tying their performance to diplomas tends to heap on pressure without significant benefit in their pursuit of college or career, they said.

“It would be welcome to postpone (them) as a graduation requirement,” said Jeanne Willard, director of college and career readiness and on-time graduation for the district.

Marysville School District had less than 100 students and Northshore School District had 16 needing to pass the biology test.

The president of the Marysville School Board prefers the House approach.

“‘High stakes’ testing should not determine graduation from high school,” said board President Pete Lundberg in a statement provided by the district.

“All learners are different, have different skills, learning styles and abilities. They learn in different ways, at different rates and times,” he wrote. “Attaching graduation to one particular test, given on one day, at one time, in one way, does not allow for individual differences. In many ways it’s a false read. It disrespects the individuality of learners, and has little correlation to success in life.”

In Olympia, business leaders and education reform groups argue the use of high-stakes tests is helping increase graduation rates across the state.

To break the link would put more graduates at risk of leaving high school unable to demonstrate basic reading, writing, and math concepts, wrote Washington Roundtable president Steve Mullin in an April 11 email to lawmakers. The round table is a nonprofit organization comprised of senior executives of major businesses in the state.

“In our view, this is not a better outcome for students,” he wrote. “Students who must take remedial classes in our community and technical college system are much less likely to persist to a credential than students who arrive ready to take credit-bearing classes.

“Washington has required an assessment-based graduation requirement for almost a decade and over that period more students are graduating from high school and they are achieving at higher levels,” he wrote. “A link between high school assessments and graduation is essential to making continued progress.”

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

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