Washington wisely stays course with Common Core

The first round of Common Core-based test scores, released two weeks ago, shows Washington students falling far short of last year’s performance.

Bad news? Not really. The new Smarter Balanced Assessment exam demands more. Unlike previous statewide tests, it reflects rigorous national standards — which means Washington’s scores can be compared directly to scores in, say, Massachusetts or Texas.

When the bar is lifted, fewer students will clear it at first. Fewer than half of Washington students met the proficiency standard when they took the exam last spring.

The sky is not falling. Passing the English section of Smarter Balanced won’t become a graduation requirement for two years; passing the math section won’t be required for four years. Students and schools have time to up their game.

And mere graduation isn’t likely to be much harder in the short term. A score of 3 or 4 on the tests is evidence of college-readiness. But the state Board of Education recently decided that a high school diploma should require only a 2.5. The number was calibrated to produce roughly the same rate of graduation as in years past.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment could be thought of as a fire alarm that should have been ringing for the last 50 years.

Washington’s earlier statewide tests required less critical thinking and grade-level knowledge; they overstated the success of students and schools. Prior to the 1990s, there were no mandated state tests at all, which allowed many students to cruise all the way through high school without a clue that they weren’t qualifying for decent jobs or college.

Some people, it seems, want to go back to those good old days.

Not blacks and Latinos: Their children have historically suffered from mediocre schools and low expectations. Civil rights organizations have adamantly defended the Common Core benchmarks.

In contrast, far-right conservatives and some teachers groups have tried to sabotage the new system, by repealing Common Core at the state level and by encouraging families to opt out of the Smarter Balanced exams.

Common Core’s opponents have been trying to stir up a panic about it. The standards have been variously attacked as a federal plot to take over the schools, a Trojan horse for sex education, a sinister surveillance scheme, and a set of mandatory textbooks and course plans. Some have claimed that teachers were shut out of its development.

None of that is true.

For all the stink the opposition has raised, 43 states have stuck with Common Core. Washington, fortunately, is among them. Attempts to repeal Common Core have gotten no traction in Olympia.

This state needs the higher standards and tougher tests.

One out of four of our students fails to graduate from high school. Of those who graduate, roughly 40 percent don’t move on to two- or four-year colleges. Of the 60 percent who do enroll in college, roughly 40 percent must take remedial classes.

There’s plenty of room to raise the bar. And when bars are raised, students run faster and jump higher.