Politics & Government

No tests required for high school diploma? Lawmakers weigh changing rules

As Washington phases in new statewide tests for high school students, lawmakers are questioning whether those exams should decide if students earn a diploma.

Two proposals in the Legislature would eliminate statewide standardized tests as requirements for high school graduation, while another plan backed by Gov. Jay Inslee would give students more makeup options if they fail the state tests.

“The basic thing is: We can test kids, we can measure the students’ progress and find their weak areas, without subjecting them to the high stakes of ‘fail the test and don’t graduate,’ ” said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who is sponsoring House Bill 1363.

Under Hunt’s bill, which is backed by the Washington Education Association, statewide assessments in reading, math and biology would still be administered to high school students, but the test results wouldn’t have any bearing on whether the student can earn a high school diploma.

A similar proposal supported by state schools superintendent Randy Dorn would go a step further. Under House Bill 1875, scoring poorly on one of the statewide tests wouldn’t mean a student isn’t on track to graduate, but it would mean they’d have to take specialized remedial coursework during their senior year.

That classwork, if completed successfully, would indicate that a student is ready for college-level courses in that subject area, according to the bill.

“It de-links the test (from graduation), but it keeps the rigor,” said Marcia Fromhold, a lobbyist for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Still, some worry that not linking statewide assessments to high school graduation could cause students to not take the exams seriously. Students in Washington have been required to pass some type of statewide assessment or complete an approved alternative to graduate from high school since 2008.

“I think it is important that kids have some skin in the game,” said state Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, who added that Hunt’s proposal “seems like a no-stakes test.”

Another proposal from Inslee’s office would continue tying reading and math tests to high school graduation, but would let districts offer new college-prep classes that students can take as alternatives if they don’t pass the tests.

All three bills about testing requirements for high school graduation received hearings Tuesday in the House Education Committee.

Part of what’s driving the reconsideration of statewide high-school exit exams is the state’s move to new math and reading tests based on the Common Core State Standards.

Under a plan approved by the Legislature two years ago, 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. The new tests, which juniors throughout Washington will take for the first time this year, are set to be administered on top of the state’s existing math and reading tests during a transition period.

State and local education officials have expressed concern about the cost and burden of administering multiple types of tests. Dorn and others have also argued that the new Common Core-based tests are more difficult than the state’s previous end-of-course assessments and shouldn’t be used to judge minimum high school proficiency.

All of this year’s bills seeking to tweak state testing requirements would speed up the transition to the Common Core-based tests, so that they’d be the only statewide assessments in reading and math administered starting next year.

OSPI estimates that speeding up the transition to the new tests while also eliminating the tests as graduation requirements could save the state about $29 million over two years.