Politics & Government

Deal means seniors who failed state tests can get their high school diplomas anyway

It looks like an estimated 2,000 high school seniors who failed the state-mandated biology exam will get a pass this year.

A deal struck Thursday in the Legislature would allow students in the class of 2017 and beyond to earn a high school diploma without meeting Washington’s testing requirements in biology.

Other seniors who failed standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics also could get a diploma under the new agreement. Those students would have to file an appeal to show they’re proficient in those subjects.

Seniors who failed to pass the biology test would be allowed to graduate automatically under the terms of Thursday’s deal.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said the agreement is needed to ensure thousands of high school students aren’t held back by tests he thinks are a poor measure of whether they’re ready to graduate.

The Common Core-based exams the state recently began administering in math and English language arts are considered more difficult than the tests the state has used in the past.

Meanwhile, the state’s end-of-course exam in biology has stumped students for years, partly because it tests such a narrow part of students’ science knowledge, Reykdal and others have argued.

Under the tentative agreement, “There’s going to be more pathways to demonstrate proficiency,” Reykdal said.

“Ultimately, more students will graduate, because they can demonstrate high-school proficiency in more diverse ways, instead of the one-size-fits-all test,” said Reykdal, a former Democratic lawmaker.

Lawmakers previously disagreed about whether they should eliminate only the biology-test requirement or also remove the requirements that students pass the math and language-arts tests to graduate.

Some lawmakers had argued that removing all the tests as graduation requirements would amount to lowering standards.

The compromise would ensure the state’s testing standards for math and language arts stay in place in the future, while suspending the biology-test requirement indefinitely.

Washington state is expected to adopt a new, more comprehensive science test to replace the biology test a few years from now.

Under the deal, students in the classes of 2017 and 2018 could submit an appeal to bypass the math and language-arts testing requirements. Students who who were supposed to graduate in 2014, 2015 or 2016 could apply retroactively for a break from those requirements as well.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said the goal is to make sure that in the future students aren’t waiting until June of their senior year to find out whether or not they are going to graduate.

Starting in 2019, the state would begin administering the math and English exams a year earlier, in 10th grade, to give students more time to pass an alternative. Right now, students take those tests in 11th grade.

“We’re recognizing we want to have a system in place that helps these kids get access to the coursework and the intensive remediation that helps them learn,” Fain said.

Under the agreement, students in the classes of 2017 who are already accepted to a college or university would most likely win their appeals, key negotiators said.

Same for students who have already enlisted in the military, won a college scholarship or completed college coursework through a program like Running Start.

Lawmakers said the measure should come up for a formal vote in the Legislature next week, where it is expected to pass.

State Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, said the compromise bill should allow the state’s testing policy to start helping students, rather than hurting them.

“Rather than using it as a hammer to not let kids graduate, it focuses all of us on what those individual kids need the most,” said Dolan, who is a vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “It gives every kid hope for the future.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction didn’t have precise numbers Thursday for how many students would benefit from the proposed deal on testing requirements.

As of early May, about 3,300 high school seniors had met all statewide testing requirements for graduation except for the biology test. 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.

Reykdal said the numbers have probably shrunk since then, but that Thursday’s deal still would help thousands of students.

“You can safely say a couple thousand by the biology fix, and a few more thousand potentially by the other subjects,” Reykdal said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1