State schools chief: No more tests for high school graduation

Washington state’s top education official wants to stop requiring students to pass high-stakes exams before they can graduate from high school, a proposal that would reverse years of standardized testing policy in the state.

The idea from state schools chief Randy Dorn comes as Washington schools are transitioning to a new set of standardized tests based on the Common Core State Standards. Under a plan approved by the Legislature last year, students in the class of 2019 and beyond will be required to pass the new Common Core-based tests in language arts and math to receive a high school diploma.

Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, wants to abandon that plan. His office estimates the state could save $30 million in its next two-year budget cycle by speeding up schools’ transition to the Common Core-based tests and not making them a graduation requirement.

For the next few years, school districts will be required to continue administering older-generation tests — end-of-course assessments and the state High School Proficiency Exam — on top of the Common Core-based tests. During the transition, high school students now in their junior year or below can pass either type of reading and math test to graduate.

But Dorn said that administering both sets of tests is going to create serious logistical issues for school districts next spring. He wants the Legislature to pass a bill next year that would get rid of the testing transition plan and move schools to using only the Common Core-based tests by spring of 2016.

At the same time, Dorn said the Common Core-based tests shouldn’t be used to determine whether students are ready to graduate. That’s because the new tests administered in 11th grade are designed to measure whether students are ready for college, which is a much higher standard than basic high school proficiency, he said.

“The double-testing is a problem. Having two standards is a problem,” Dorn said Thursday.

Dorn’s proposal, which is included in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s agency budget request, would need the Legislature’s approval to move forward.

Lawmakers have required students to pass at least one state standardized test or approved alternative to earn a high school diploma since 2008, when that year’s graduating class had to pass the reading and writing portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said in the past there has been political resistance to getting rid of state standardized tests as graduation requirements. Yet she said it would be “imprudent to start speculating” how lawmakers may receive Dorn’s proposal in the coming legislative session that begins in January.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Santos said Thursday.

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said he thinks eliminating testing requirements for high school graduation would be a bad idea, especially when the Legislature is seeking to increase funding for public schools in response to an order from the state Supreme Court. Dammeier is the vice chairman of the Senate education committee and a Senate Republican leader on education policy issues.

“I don’t believe removing accountability is in the best interest of students who need to be prepared for their future — be it college or career,” Dammeier wrote in an email Friday. “History has shown, if the tests don’t count for anything, they are not taken seriously.”

Dorn said the state’s recent moves to increase the number of credits required to graduate from high school and implement the more difficult Common Core standards mean that students will be getting a more rigorous high school education in the future, regardless of whether they’re required to pass high-stakes exams.

Dorn said he still thinks the Common Core-based tests should help determine what coursework students must take in their senior year. He said students who score poorly on the 11th grade tests should be required to take remedial classes before they can graduate.

“If they don’t do well on the test, you’re going to prescribe the math course they have to take in their senior year, and they have to pass it,” Dorn said. “There’s leverage there.”