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Editorial: Don’t break the link between tests and graduation

Ending the testing requirement for a high school diploma would be a disservice to all students.

By The Herald Editorial Board

One would think the Legislature has enough to do without going back over old ground and scuttling a compromise it reached less than a year ago.

But that’s what’s being considered with separate bills in the House and Senate that would end the requirement that students in the 10th grade pass statewide standardized tests in math and language arts in order to earn a diploma. House Bill 2621 and Senate Bill 6144 are both before their respective education committees and could be scheduled for committee votes soon.

Last year, the Democratic-controlled House passed legislation that would have “delinked” a passing grade in the test as a graduation prerequisite. But the bill did not have enough support in the Republican-controlled Senate, which, instead, passed a compromise in June that kept the test requirement for math, reading and writing but delayed adoption until 2021 of a similar mandate to pass a science test.

Support for ending the testing requirement is based on the notion that thousands of students were being denied diplomas because of the test. But as the editorial board noted last year in support of the compromise, most of those who had failed the test or hadn’t taken it were also deficient in the credits necessary to graduate. Truancy was — and remains — a bigger obstacle than the test.

And the tests — the Smarter Balanced Assessments that are taken in the third, eighth and now 10th grades — are not as “high stakes” as some have claimed. As part of last year’s compromise, the high school test was moved from the junior year to the sophomore year, allowing ample time for students to take advantage of a number of options to satisfy the requirement.

Among the alternatives if a student fails the math, reading and writing (and later the science test):

An acceptable score on the SAT, ACT or other college prep test;

A comparison of grade point average if the student has a GPA of 3.2 in their senior year;

Successful completion of subject area course in a dual-credit college program such as Running Start or International Baccalaureate;

Passage of a school-district designed and administered assessment.

And, if a student is initially unsuccessful in any of those options, an appeals process was provided for in last year’s legislation that would award a diploma based on completion of a college-level course in the subject area, admission to college or college prep program, award of a scholarship for higher education or enlistment in the military.

With those options available, cutting the tie between test and diploma could prove to be a disservice to all students, not just those who could actually benefit from the results of a test that shows where they are not yet prepared for career or further college after high school.

Students who are told the test is no longer a graduation requirement will have no motivation to do well or even reason to take the test, robbing them of a necessary assessment of what they’ve learned and what academic weaknesses they, their parents and their teachers need to focus on. The same is true for those who do pass the test but will still benefit from the information the assessment provides. And it will also deny the community of a valuable assessment of individual school performance.

In testimony before the Senate’s education committee, Jan. 15, Neil Strege, vice president of Washington Roundtable — which represents state employers who are eager to hire a local, qualified workforce — noted that the state is seeing steady statewide increases in graduation rates since the testing requirement was adopted, demonstrating that the tests are not a significant impediment to graduation. And since 2008, when the tests became a graduation requirement, community and technical colleges have seen a decline in the percentage of students needing remedial courses for math and language arts.

The Legislature still has significant work to complete to satisfy its constitutional requirement to amply fund K-12 education this year and address some of the work left undone and hastily slapped together last year to avoid a partial government shutdown.

The state’s school districts have pointed out several issues that require the Legislature’s attention before it is scheduled to adjourn in early March, including inadequate funding for special education, the need to restore a salary allocation model that takes into account teachers’ education and training, development of a more equitable levy formula for school districts and even a clear definition of what “basic education” means and the separate funding responsibilities for the state and for individual school districts.

The Legislature, in recent years and in the years to come, is making a historic reinvestment in the education of K-12 students. Taxpayers, parents and all 1.1 million K-12 students deserve a meaningful assessment of that investment.

In ending a testing requirement for a few hundred students in order to award a piece of paper that will mean less because of those lower standards, lawmakers would deny those students their best opportunity to achieve and move forward with career or college.

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