Politics & Government

Which tests should students have to pass to graduate? None, some lawmakers say

A standoff over whether high school students should have to pass a biology test to graduate pushed the Legislature to work a record number of days in overtime two years ago.

Now, lawmakers mostly agree the biology-test requirement should go. But some want to do away with other testing requirements as well, leading to yet another stalemate over standardized tests.

The state Senate has passed a bill that would delay using a science exam as a graduation requirement for four years. The plan, Senate Bill 5891, would let today’s high school students — including seniors in the Class of 2017 — graduate without having to pass the biology test or an approved alternative.

The state House favors a different approach: unlinking all standardized tests, including those for mathematics and reading, from graduation requirements.

Under House Bill 1046, students no longer would have to meet testing requirements in biology, math or English language arts to earn a diploma. They still would have to take the tests to meet federal accountability requirements.

It’s unclear whether the dispute will be resolved in time to help seniors at risk of not graduating this year because of failing one of the statewide exams. So far, neither chamber has voted on the other’s proposal.

“There is time sensitivity on this,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “Graduations are coming up in the middle of June, and the Legislature needs to act immediately on delaying the biology end-of-course exam, for the sake of the Class of 2017.”

Zeiger said he’s zeroing in on the biology test partly because it affects the most students.

As of this week, about 3,300 high school seniors have met all statewide testing requirements for graduation other than the biology test, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

By comparison, 1,600 students had failed to meet statewide testing requirements solely in English language arts, while 970 had met testing requirements in every subject but math.

Lawmakers voted to delay making the biology test a graduation requirement in 2015, after an extended debate that caused the Legislature to work several extra days in July.

Because of that two-year delay, 2017 marks the first year that seniors must meet biology test requirements to earn a diploma.

Critics of the biology test say it’s a poor measurement of students’ science knowledge, because it doesn’t include questions about other science subjects, such as physics, chemistry or geology.

The state’s biology end-of-course exam already is scheduled to be replaced in the next few years with a more comprehensive science test.

Yet Rep. Monica Stonier, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the state tests in math and English language arts aren’t good gauges of students’ academic proficiency, either.

The state recently began phasing in math and language arts tests based on the Common Core state standards, which were developed by a multistate consortium.

Stonier, D-Vancouver, said those tests were designed to measure how schools and districts are doing for federal accountability purposes — not for deciding whether students are ready to graduate from high school.

“The state test is designed to measure the state education system, not individual students,” Stonier said. “My stance is if it is not OK to use the wrong test for the wrong reasons, than it shouldn’t be OK to eliminate only one of them at this time.”

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal agrees.

The first-term schools chief said that once the state fully moves to the new Smarter Balanced test in mathematics, more students will struggle to pass the math test than are struggling with the biology exam.

That’s because the Common Core-based tests were primarily designed to measure a student’s readiness to begin college or a post-high school career, which Reykdal said is a higher bar than whether a student is ready to earn a high school diploma.

Even establishing separate scoring criteria for graduation versus college entry doesn’t solve that problem, he said.

“We’re still testing the wrong stuff,” Reykdal said, noting the new math test evaluates students on algebra II, which not all high school students take.

“We need a much more comprehensive fix to assessments than just biology,” Reykdal said. “The train wreck’s coming.”

Others fear that if the state doesn’t continue requiring students to meet testing requirements in reading, writing and math to graduate, it will lower the value of a high school diploma.

“There has to be a standard,” said Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District. “The ability to write and read well, and think well and do mathematics, are logical subjects to be tested on to confirm that the graduation diploma really has merit.”

The debate doesn’t fall cleanly along party lines. In the House, a majority of Republicans supported the plan to eliminate all standardized tests as graduation requirements, even as Republican Senate leaders remain wary.

State Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union and the sponsor of the House testing bill, said he would prefer to see teachers develop their own exams that test students on the material they teach in class, instead of spending class time preparing students to take standardized tests.

“I firmly believe we need to make students lifelong learners, not lifelong test-takers,” he said.

Lawmakers are in the middle of a 30-day special session to negotiate a new two-year state budget. As part of the process, they are working to comply with a 2012 court order to fix how the state pays for schools.

Adopting the House proposal to remove the three tests as graduation requirements would save the state about $21 million over two years, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

MacEwen predicted the debate over testing policy will continue through the budget debate, which could require additional overtime sessions.

“I don’t see us finishing that budget negotiation in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1