Longview and Kelso seniors who were unable to pass a controversial biology assessment test but met all other graduation obligations will still receive diplomas. The new legislation is designed to offer some relief to struggling high school students.
Last Saturday, the Legislature voted unanimously to “decouple” the test from state graduation requirements until 2021, as part of a sweeping new budget deal that makes dramatic changes to the way Washington funds K-12 public education.
Under previous state law, the graduating class of 2017 had been the first class required to pass the state’s high-stakes biology assessment test. Many students in the state who had failed the test but met all other requirements were left wondering if they would still receive a diploma as state lawmakers in Olympia worked on a compromise that would lift the requirement.
Tony VanderMaas, the Longview School District’s new executive director of leadership and learning, said the district has not yet been able to determine how many students the changes will retroactively effect. VanderMaas said high schools are responsible for sending out individual diplomas and most school employees took the week of Fourth of July off.
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VanderMaas, who spent the last 10 years working as a principal at Ridgefield High School, added that he can only remember one student who did not graduate on time solely due to state testing requirements.
“My experience has been that there are always additional factors that are affecting them other than just state testing,” he said in an interview. Those factors usually include struggling with regular coursework and failing core classes, he said.
The new legislation, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday, also moves the state’s standardized English and math assessments from the 11th grade to the 10th grade and allows school districts to come up with alternative ways for students to demonstrate proficiency.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal praised the move, saying the new law will allow more time for learning interventions and supports to help students meet state standards.
“Students need and deserve multiple ways to show they know the state learning standards and have those competencies tied to career or college opportunities,” he said in a press release.
According to the Superintendent’s office, roughly 3,300 high school seniors in Washington were unable to pass the biology assessment test this year — about 4 percent of all seniors.
Just under 70 percent of students in the Longview School District passed the state’s “end of course” biology test in the 10th grade during the 2015-2016 school year, while a little over 72 percent of students in the Kelso School District met the requirement. That represents a decrease from the nearly 80 percent of students in both districts who managed to pass the assessment during the 2013-2014 school year, according to data from OSPI. However students are allowed to retake the test multiple times if they fail on the first try.
If they can’t pass the test by graduation, students can alternatively take the ACT and the requirement is waived if they score high enough on the science section. Students are also allowed to work with a teacher to submit a “collection of evidence” demonstrating proficiency.
“The science test has not been an issue until now because the state has always sort of kicked it down the road,” VanderMaas said.
Despite the numerous ways for students to demonstrate proficiency in science, none had been required by the state in order to receive a diploma — until this year.
In a recent interview, Longview School District Superintendent Dan Zorn expressed support for decoupling the state’s biology assessment from graduation requirements.
“One test, one moment in time negating an entire 12-year educational career ... you could argue for a lot of students that one test is not reflective of the work and the effort these kids have put forth in terms of their credit attainment,” he said.
VanderMaas said the new law will give students more opportunities to meet the state standard in different ways. But, as with much of the education legislation passed by the Legislature over the weekend, it will take some time to sort out the details.
OSPI must sign off on any new assessments used by districts instead of the state test. This means the Longview School District will probably wait until the 2018-2019 year to devise and implement alternative assessments, VanderMaas said.
“It all hinges on what OSPI approves,” he said.
VanderMaas said the district will remain focused on the broader goal of improving on-time graduation rates.
Longview had an adjusted four-year cohort graduation rate of 78.1 percent in 2015, according to OSPI, which mirrors the statewide average for that year. Kelso’s four-year cohort graduation rate for 2015 was 82.5 percent, the most recent data available. The nation’s high school graduation climbed to a record 83.2 percent that same year.