Editorial: Poor attendance, not tests, denying kids diplomas

By The Herald Editorial Board

Starting last week and continuing through this week, thousands of members of the class of 2017 will hear their names called during commencement ceremonies for high schools in Snohomish County, many walking the stage at Xfinity Arena in Everett.

Whether they also receive a diploma will have depended on completing all credits required for graduation and passing all three standardized tests in English language arts, math and — new for the class of 2017 — biology.

Not all will, and some in the Legislature want to eliminate those three tests from being a barrier to graduation, claiming that as many as 5,500 won’t receive a diploma because they have failed one or more of the three tests. The House has passed legislation, HB 1046, that would “delink” all standardized assessments from graduation, but the Senate’s Republican leadership has not advanced the bill. Yet even the Senate has passed legislation, SB 5891, that would lift the biology test as a requirement for the current class of seniors, waiting instead for a more general science standard and assessment that is to be developed and adopted later.

Critics of using the Smarter Balanced Assessments as a graduation requirement, including two state legislators writing in a commentary for The Seattle Times last week, criticize that the tests were never intended for that purpose. They were adopted, said State Reps. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver; and Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, to meet requirements by the federal government to measure the performance of the state’s education system, not as a high-stakes exit exam for students that, they wrote, limits further educational opportunity.

The Washington Education Association, the teachers union, also has objected to the tests as a poor way of assessing the breadth and depth of what a student has learned and judging whether they’ve ready for college and career.

Others, in particular the Washington Roundtable, a policy center that represents many of the state’s employers, are defending the tests’ connection to graduation as important motivation for students, parents and educators.

The tests might not have been developed as a graduation requirement, says Steve Mullin, president of the Roundtable, but that doesn’t argue against the legitimacy of that use.

The group also doubts whether the tests are as onerous as some claim, pointing to relatively large numbers of students already passing the tests.

Roundtable’s figures show that about 81 percent of the class of 2017 have already met all three assessments, and that figure doesn’t include those who may meet the requirements or satisfy and alternative requirement in weeks to come.

It’s not clear for how many students the tests are a barrier to graduation.

At least some who haven’t passed all tests are still in the process of taking retests or will have taken advantage of alternatives to the tests, including passage of the SAT or other tests or a “collection of evidence,” samples of classroom work that show what a student has learned. (One reason that school districts often allow seniors who are short of requirements to participate in commencement is because the results of tests taken in spring may not be available until later this summer and retakes of the Smarter Balanced Assessments are allowed through mid-June.)

For more students, the hurdle they aren’t clearing are the class credits — currently 20 to 22, but increasing to 24 for the class of 2021 — earned during high school. Statewide, according to Reps. Stonier and Dolan, about 10,000 are short on credits or other graduation requirements, such as a senior project.

Of the 1,286 students in the Everett School District’s class of 2017, 70, as of early June, hadn’t met the assessment requirements, but many of those were also lacking enough credits to graduate. Figures from the school district show that of the 49 students not passing the biology test, 30 were also lacking all credits needed for graduation.

And the toughest barrier to earning credits, school officials say, is truancy, which often demands a concerted outreach to students to address emotional, family or other problems to get them back into class. Those efforts in the Everett School District have helped it reach a graduation rate in 2016 of nearly 91 percent for four-year graduates and nearly 95 percent for five-year graduates.

More than 25 years ago, the state Legislature passed legislation that made tests part of high school graduation requirements, and the debate has continued since. The Legislature voted to delink the standardized assessments from graduation in 1996, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Lowry, who died this spring.

In his veto message, Lowry saw the tests as necessary to raising the achievement level of all students.

“In our education reform process, no other element has the effect of pushing all students toward these higher levels of achievement,” Lowry said.

This debate, unfortunately, also has drawn attention from another of the purposes of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, determining what a student has learned and where teacher, student and parents need to focus next.

As the state continues work to develop a science standard that is broader than the biology test, the Legislature should lift that test as a graduation requirement. But, with the knowledge that there are options for students to retake tests or use alternatives to satisfy graduation requirements, the tests for English language and math aren’t the most onerous barriers to a diploma.

What needs more attention are the difficulties that are keeping some kids from making it to class to learn.

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