Class of 2017 shouldn’t be used as political pawns

From the Editorial Board

North Thurston High School students examine their Nisqually River hatchery chinook salmon as they prepare for dissection during biology class. The state biology test continues to be a point of controversy at the Legislature.
North Thurston High School students examine their Nisqually River hatchery chinook salmon as they prepare for dissection during biology class. The state biology test continues to be a point of controversy at the Legislature. Olympian file photo, 2015

This year, an estimated 5,500 Washington high school seniors won’t receive a high school diploma because of failure to meet one of the state’s three graduation assessment requirements. Many of those students, an estimated 3,302, failed the comprehensive biology test.

Educators and lawmakers concede the statewide biology test is a failed experiment; it’s been called outdated and narrow. It didn’t bring in other sciences such as physics, chemistry or geology.

This is not the first time the biology test has tripped up students. Roll tape back to 2015, the first year that seniors were supposed to have to pass it, and see the Legislature suspended the requirement because 10 percent of Washington seniors couldn’t meet standard.

Here we are in 2017, and the test is still a lemon. But thanks to a bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, the Senate sanely determined that passing the biology exam, or an approved alternative, would not be required for a diploma this year.

This is great news for the 247 students in the Tacoma School District who failed it. But they may want to wait before passing out graduation announcements. That’s because the state House, instead of approving this sensible Senate bill, is using it as an opportunity to try to weaken the rest of Washington’s assessment system.

House Bill 1046 aims to delink state assessments including math and English language arts from graduation requirements altogether. That means rather than pass the Senate’s biology-only compromise, power brokers in the House are holding out for more.

So, in a nutshell, you have both sides of the Capitol in a stalemate, and neither chamber looks close to budging.

High-stakes testing has long been the bugaboo of modern education. Test-and-punish policies, ala President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, spurred new life into a movement passionate against the practice. And the distaste for standardized testing doesn’t cut cleanly across partisan lines.

There are both Democrats and Republicans who see the testing movement as: A) A corporate takeover of the public education system, one that includes billionaires like Bill Gates and members of the Walton family (owners of Walmart). B) The nanny state poking its head where it doesn’t belong and telling teachers how to teach. C) A blatant display of cultural bias skewed toward white privilege. D) All of the above.

We see standardized tests as a way to measure school performance; strengthen accountability and equity; and ensure kids don’t graduate just by recording seat time.

We agree with state school Superintendent Chris Reykdal, who says the spring assessments should be given in the 10th grade instead of the 11th to ensure time for remediation. But we cry foul on those who think the system should be scrapped altogether.

These tests aren’t perfect, but neither are they a waste of time.

Eliminating the exams may save the state about $21 million over the next two years, according to a House analysis. But how much is it going to cost us when students aren’t ready to meet future higher-education and workplace demands?

In January, the Washington Roundtable, a group of state business leaders, issued a report estimating our state could expect an additional 740,000 jobs over the next five years, but nearly 80 percent will require a post-secondary degree or other certification.

Right now, only 31 percent of students who attend a Washington public high school go on to attain a postsecondary credential by age 26. Standardized tests alone won’t raise that number, but they provide a useful metric on how school systems can better serve students — and perhaps more important, who they’re not serving.

Without linking tests to graduation, it’s reasonable to fear test participation will be low and the days of social promotion will return.

House lawmakers have a chance to right a wrong for more than 3,000 high school seniors. Keeping students from their diplomas while holding out for some kind of nuclear option rates an “F” in our gradebook.