Comment: Keep our promise to students on their core skills

A bill allowing an easier path to diplomas would prevent certainty they’re ready for life’s next step.

By Steve Mullin / For The Herald

High school graduations are meant to be joyous, pride-filled occasions, a culmination of years of hard work and learning.

Graduates should feel confident that their diplomas represent at least the basic skills necessary to launch their next phases in life. Students should feel secure that their schools fulfilled their promise and duty to educate them in preparation for that next step.

It’s been 30 years since Washington state committed to the promise of a meaningful high school diploma. In the decades since, our state has pursued the goal that all students graduate prepared to contribute to their own economic well-being and that of their families and communities. To achieve that goal, the Legislature passed and has continuously updated a set of minimum high school graduation requirements that ensure students attain at least the basic reading, writing, and math skills necessary to achieve that well-being. And graduation rates have continued to improve.

Policymakers have often debated how students can best demonstrate these minimum skills. There are multiple pathways for doing so. Students can take the 10th grade assessments and achieve a minimum standard, which is set far lower than the proficient, college-and-career standard that often gets reported in the news. Alternatively, they can submit scores from the Armed Services Qualification Test, college admissions tests, Advanced Placement exams, or International Baccalaureate exams. Again, those score requirements are calibrated to minimum basic skills, not career-and-college readiness. Other pathway options include taking career and technical education (CTE), dual-credit or bridge-to-college transition courses.

The common thread in all of these pathways is a uniform, agreed-upon standard of minimum expectations in reading, writing and math. Now, with billions in additional federal and state education funding made available in recent years, some lawmakers want to snap that thread and break the state’s promise to students.

Legislators are considering House Bill 1308, which would create a new pathway whereby students submit a performance, presentation, portfolio, report, film or exhibit that applies learning standards in two subjects of their choice. Those subjects do not have to be English or math, and there would be no uniform, agreed-upon standard of minimum expectations.

For example, a student could submit a TikTok video as a piece of performance art and a highlight reel of athletic performances. Such exhibitions could serve as signs that students are finding and applying their passions, which is inspiring and important. But neither provides evidence that a student has at least some of the basic reading, writing and math skills needed for any job or post-high school opportunity.

The graduation pathway as set forward in House Bill 1308 is inconsistent with expectations engrained in the other pathways. It is incongruent with a long agreed-upon promise that earning a diploma means, at minimum, a student has basic reading, writing and math skills. To the contrary, it throws open the door for schools to graduate students who lack core basic skills, leaving them ill-prepared to lead economically self-sufficient lives. The whole point of the requirement is to identify those students without basic skills well before they graduate so they can receive targeted help.

We do our young people, their families, our communities, and our state a terminal disservice if we untether the high school diploma from any requirement of basic academic and technical skills needed to function in our economy. In a moment when learning has been deeply disrupted by the pandemic, we must double down on supporting students to re-engage in and recover learning. Rather than misleading students about the skills they will need for their futures, let’s instead fulfill the promise made to prepare them for opportunities that actually lay ahead.

Say no to House Bill 1308 as currently written.

Steve Mullin is president of Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit organization comprised of the state’s senior business leaders that has engaged in state education policy since 1983.

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