Don’t give up on kids, help them to succeed

This afternoon, a hearing is scheduled in Olympia on a bill that would delay critical reading and writing requirements for high school graduation. That this is also the day when our nation pays tribute to the principles of human equality and progress espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suggests the bill is being positioned as some sort of civil rights measure. It’s anything but.

Washington’s public schools have made enormous strides in recent years to ensure that high school graduates have the literacy skills they need to succeed in a competitive world. This year’s seniors are the first to be required to pass the reading and writing portions of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning — or an approved alternative — in order to graduate.

Of all students in this year’s graduating class who have taken the WASL in reading and writing, 85 percent have passed both. Among white and Asian students, the percentage is slightly higher, among blacks, Hispanics and American Indians, it’s between 70 and 73 percent. That racial discrepancy is cited by some as reason to delay the requirement by four years, which Senate Bill 6540 would do.

That’s a terrible idea for plenty of reasons, but particularly for the message it sends to students who are still trying to meet the standards: “Never mind, you can’t make the grade in time. So even if you can’t read and/or write well, we’ll hand you a diploma anyway. Good luck out there.”

The graduation requirement has driven successful efforts to improve literacy for all children. For example, 60 percent of black 10th graders in Washington passed the WASL in reading on their first try last year; fewer than 3 in 10 did eight years ago. Currently, out of 3,279 black students in the Class of 2008, 2,401 have met the standard by passing both reading and writing, and 411 have passed one or the other. Of the 467 black students who haven’t passed either test, two-thirds haven’t registered any score at all, strongly suggesting they’re not on track to graduate anyway.

Rather than lowering the bar and removing an accountability tool that’s working so well, we should be doing whatever it takes to help students who haven’t passed both tests to meet standards in time for graduation. To do less is to return to a culture of low expectations that keeps students from reaching their potential — the opposite of what Dr. King preached.

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