Opinion

Earning a diploma may get easier in Washington, but should it?

Future Tacoma high school graduates from different age groups connect at a public event in 2016. Whitman Elementary School kindergartener Cavali Davis (Class of 2029), right, gives his undivided attention to Mount Tahoma student Aniya Critton (Class of 2020). Washington graduation requirements could change before any of these students cross the stage and are handed their diplomas.
Future Tacoma high school graduates from different age groups connect at a public event in 2016. Whitman Elementary School kindergartener Cavali Davis (Class of 2029), right, gives his undivided attention to Mount Tahoma student Aniya Critton (Class of 2020). Washington graduation requirements could change before any of these students cross the stage and are handed their diplomas. News Tribune file photo

In this week’s edition of same song, different verse, Democrats in Olympia are again trying to de-link Washington high school graduation from statewide assessments.

Legislators are seeking to dump the requirement that students in 10th grade pass statewide standardized tests before receiving their diplomas in 12th grade.

This is a drastic change we’ve historically opposed, and it continues to give us pause.

If either of two bills becomes law, 2019 will be the last year students have to meet state Common Core proficiency standards to graduate.

Senate Bill 5548, which was filed at the request of Washington school superintendent Chris Reykdal, offers students multiple “pathways” to graduation.

Those alternate routes include acceptance into an apprenticeship program, passing a military aptitude or industry-based exam, earning good scores on college-entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, or earning high school credit through dual-credit classes or other programs.

Opposition has softened among those who’ve long fought de-linking, such as the Washington Roundtable, a business-oriented think tank. The Senate bill is “something we can potentially live with,” Roundtable vice president Neil Strege told us Friday.

Democrats in the House are trying to advance a similar proposal, House Bill 1599.

But just because both bills have some bipartisan support doesn’t alleviate all our concerns.

We understand that putting a diploma in the hands of every high school senior is a universal goal; without it, students face difficulty landing jobs, entering the military or continuing post-secondary training or education.

We also understand not every adult needs calculus, physics or advanced composition. But basic proficiencies in math, science and language arts are critical for workforce readiness. All colleges require it, as do most post-secondary certification programs from culinary arts to welding.

School Districts like Tacoma, where the graduation rate has climbed from 55 percent to 89.3 percent in the last decade, are rightly proud of the turnaround. Watering down graduation requirements will only cause people to question their success.

Proponents of de-linking argue a high school transcript is proof of a student’s readiness. Indeed, school grades are strong predictors, but they don’t paint a full picture.

Washington should keep the waiver option that was part of a 2017 compromise for students who meet all other graduation requirements. It should keep graduation alternatives for special-education students and others who meet specific criteria.

But lawmakers should carefully consider the consequences before they do away with the best tool the state has to gauge most students’ readiness for post-secondary life.

Making diplomas easier to obtain wouldn’t fix the fact that only 31 percent of Washington high school students go on to earn a post-secondary credential.

In 2017, 1,600 Washington high school seniors failed to meet the Common Core exams in English language arts, while 970 failed the math section. More than 2,000 students failed the biology exam, which is why lawmakers suspended that graduation requirement until 2021.

Those failure rates say more about the K-12 system than they do about students.

Lawmakers should concentrate on strengthening interventions to help students meet academic benchmarks. Statewide assessments are administered starting in third grade. This gives educators plenty of time to offer remediation, including test retakes for those who don’t pass in 10th grade.

For the Washington Education Association, eliminating standardized tests from graduation requirements is a holy grail. Teacher unions say the exams subtract from precious classroom time and compel them to “teach to the test.”

Educators are comfortable using metrics to gauge student learning in their own classrooms, but object when the state uses them to measure school performance.

Supporters of SB 5548 still want the tests administered “for the purposes of state and federal accountability,” but it begs the question: Have they ever met a 10th grader?

Students know the difference between a high-stakes, low-stakes and no-stakes test. If you de-link it from graduation, they will opt out. And that means Washington no longer has an accurate, uniform picture of which schools are succeeding and which aren’t.

If the past is any indication, the proposed a la carte menu of graduation pathways would change again in the near future. Since 2006, students have bounced from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test to the Measure of Student Progress exam to the current Smarter Balanced assessment.

It’s enough to give educators, parents and students a case of whiplash.

We give it five years, tops, before legislators change direction again and realize diplomas should be more meaningful.

Yes, standardized tests have shortcomings. Measuring rote knowledge is what they do best – they’re less effective at capturing process and creativity – but for 26 years they’ve been the best tool to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of public school districts across Washington.

According to a report produced by Washington Roundtable, the state is projected to add 740,000 jobs over the next five years requiring a high-skilled workforce.

We know who won’t fill those jobs: students who left high school without having to meet minimal statewide standards.

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