Politics & Government

Biology test requirement still a problem for 10 percent of WA seniors

As many as 7,600 high school seniors who have failed to satisfy the state’s academic requirements in biology may be out of luck when it comes to graduating this year — and they probably shouldn’t count on any last-minute help from the Legislature.

State lawmakers adjourned their first overtime session Thursday without an agreement on whether to eliminate the biology end-of-course assessment as a requirement for earning a high school diploma. Students in the class of 2015 are the first who have been required to pass the biology test or complete an approved alternative to graduate.

About 7,600 seniors this year have failed to pass the biology test or meet standards on an assessment alternative, such as a portfolio of work demonstrating their knowledge of the subject area, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s about 10 percent of all high school seniors in the class of 2015, according to OSPI data — though an agency spokeswoman said it’s unclear whether those students have other issues, such as missing credits, that would keep them from graduating as well.

Some students also may still be working on their portfolio alternative, or waiting to see if they scored better on a retake of the exam, said OSPI spokeswoman Kristen Jaudon.

The state House passed legislation Wednesday to remove the biology test from the state’s high school graduation requirements. But because the state Senate did not take up the bill before Thursday’s special session adjournment, the bill was sent back to the House for reconsideration.

Lawmakers reconvened Friday for another 30-day special session to finalize a new two-year state operating budget. But for some students whose graduation ceremonies are happening as early as next week, time is running out, said state Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater.

“We will try to get this approved retroactively so they still get their diploma, but some of them are in danger of not walking at graduation,” said Reykdal, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2214.

“Every day the Senate delays is another group of students demoralized,” Reykdal added.

Proponents of eliminating the requirement for students to pass the biology exam say it’s unfair to test students on a single science course that they may not have taken recently, or at all, during their high school careers. Last year, the State Board of Education recommended delinking the biology test from high school graduation requirements and replacing it with a more comprehensive science test.

Yet Sen. Steve Litzow, chairman of the Senate education committee, said one reason the Senate didn’t take up Reykdal’s bill is because it makes much more sweeping changes to the state’s testing system than just giving kids a pass on the biology exam.

Reykdal’s legislation would change students’ options for meeting the state requirements in math and reading if they fail the state assessments. Rather than requiring students who fail a state test to retake it or submit a portfolio known as a Collection of Evidence to show they’ve mastered that subject, Reykdal’s proposal would require those students to enroll in a remedial course their senior year — which, if completed successfully, would meet the graduation requirement.

About 2,000 students who submitted a Collection of Evidence to meet their high school biology test requirements this winter still didn’t meet the standard, according to OSPI.

Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said he views decoupling the math, reading and biology tests from graduation requirements as a widespread lowering of standards in Washington’s public school system.

“The last thing I want to do is lower standards. I think that does a disservice to the kids,” Litzow said.

Reykdal’s measure would also speed up the state’s transition to tests based on the Common Core State Standards, which is another point of concern for Litzow.

House Bill 2214 would do away with the state’s current exit exams in algebra, geometry, reading and writing starting next year, replacing them immediately with math and reading tests that are based on the Common Core State Standards. While Washington schools began administering the Common Core-based tests to high school juniors this year, current law requires only students in the class of 2019 — today’s high school freshmen — to pass those tests to earn a high school diploma.

During the planned transition, the state is supposed to continue administering the exit exams that are being phased out, which means today’s juniors may be taking up to six standardized tests while in high school.

Reykdal’s bill would get rid of those transition years, which he said will reduce the amount of time teachers and students spend on test preparation and testing. It would also save the state about $30 million over the next two years, according to OSPI.

But Litzow said it’s unfair to switch graduation requirements on students in the middle of their high school careers, which is why he wants to maintain the three-year transition to the Common Core-based tests. Those tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, are more rigorous than the state’s previous high school exit exams.

“The concern is, if we move SBAC up earlier, what does that do to graduation and the students who are graduating? Are they ready for the test? Is the test right?” Litzow asked.

Litzow said the Senate won’t be taking up Reykdal’s bill this year, but that leaders will examine testing policy in more depth in preparation for next year’s legislative session.

Even a simpler bill that addresses only the biology test requirement is unlikely to pass this year, Litzow said, though he said the Senate is still looking closely at that issue.

Litzow said one complication is that it’s unclear exactly how many students are not graduating due to failing the biology test and how many may not be graduating for other reasons, such as missing credits or failing to submit the required Collection of Evidence materials.

“We don’t know why they didn’t pass or what the issue is,” Litzow said. “We’re having a hard time getting data. That number’s fluctuating.”

Jaudon, the OSPI spokeswoman, said the numbers are changing as the agency continues to receive updated test results.

In the meantime, school superintendents are worried about the percentage of their kids who may not receive diplomas due to the biology requirement. In a guest opinion piece submitted on behalf of six Pierce County superintendents this week, Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno and Franklin Pierce Superintendent Frank Hewins urged the Legislature to change the law.

In a phone interview Friday, Santorno said the biology test has been “a big hurdle” for many students — partly because students don’t take biology every year and may be enrolled in other science courses that don’t prepare them as well for the exam.

“Kids should graduate with a good concept of science,” Santorno said. “But to have it focus on the content and processes of biology, after they’ve only had it for one year, that doesn’t seem logical to me.”

In Tacoma, there are 306 seniors in danger of not graduating due partly to their failure to satisfy the biology requirement — about 17 percent of the district’s 2015 graduating class, Santorno said.

Santorno said she and other Tacoma Public Schools officials are still working to help those students meet graduation requirements, but some of them may not be able to walk at commencement ceremonies taking place next week.

“We are still working to get our kids to graduate, and we are looking at all the alternatives,” Santorno said. “It just seems as if this has been a little arbitrary. ... I think it is a barrier that didn’t need to be there.”