State must stick by high school graduation exams

At a time when the world is demanding more of high school graduates, Washington’s public schools shouldn’t be demanding less.

Washington and many other states are phasing in the rigorous learning goals of Common Core along with tests to determine whether students are meeting those goals. This will raise the bar for high school graduation.

Every time that bar is raised a fraction of an inch, some people howl about wasting time on tests and demanding too much from schools. The howling has begun in this state, and it will get louder as the new assessments expose educational deficiencies.

But the idea isn’t to torture or shame students – it’s to prepare them to succeed in a world that imposes its own high stakes tests and tends to be cruel to adults who couldn’t be bothered to do their schoolwork. Insisting that kids meet serious standards can look brutal at times, but it’s tough love. The real brutality is to leave the bar too low – to give students the illusion that they are preparing for trades or college without requiring them to master the necessary skills.

It’s disappointing to see Randy Dorn, the state’s elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, back down from his previous support for high school exit exams.

The Legislature decided in 1993 to require that graduates demonstrate at least some grasp of a specific body of knowledge. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision. Historically, you could acquire a high school degree by simply sitting for enough hours in enough classes and earning D grades. Many students wound up with diplomas worth no more than Monopoly money.

As a result of that year’s landmark education reform law, would-be graduates – with reasonable exceptions – must pass exams as well as earn a required minimum of course credits. Smart people have disagreed about what the test should look like. Dorn, for example, rejected the old Washington Assessment of Student Learning in favor of shorter proficiency exams and math tests given at the end of algebra and geometry courses.

Graduation tests are not an unproven novelty. Nations with high-achieving school systems – America’s competitors – also use them. It’s not enough to give students skilled teachers and well-funded schools; they must also step up their own game and prove themselves.

Ask more of students, and they’ll give more. They have to. They’ll face high stakes tests for the rest of their lives: job interviews, trade certification, college finals, work evaluations, survival in business, etc.

Dorn rightly points out that not all students are headed for college. But that’s no reason for ditching graduation tests.

Vocational training also demands academic thinking skills. In any case, a high school exit exam doesn’t have to require students to perform at college-ready levels. The cutoff scores for the high school diploma can be lower than the cutoff scores for entering the University of Washington.

Faced with the same national standards challenge, the State Board of Education is getting this right. It is sticking by exit exams, though it recently recommended that lawmakers adjust the science requirements.

The Legislature itself last year affirmed that diplomas in 2019 be linked to Common Core-based exams in math and language arts. Lawmakers won’t always find it easy to face down public demands for relaxing standards and accountability. But it’s the right thing to do for Washington’s schoolchildren and the adults they will become.