Some local school officials say students shouldn’t have to pass “high stakes” standardized tests to graduate, and they support two bills in the Legislature that would eliminate the requirement.
Both bills so far are getting overwhelming support from legislators, though Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to take a position on them.
“I think it’s a good, positive move forward,” said Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn. “We are hopeful it will pass.”
Earning a proficient score on the state standardized test was added to the list of graduation requirements in 2008. Under the mandate, students must score a 3 or 4 on the state tests for math and English language arts before they can earn their diploma.
The state also provides alternatives ways to show proficiency for students that fail the state test. Those include scoring well on the SAT or ACT, or advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes; having a 3.2 grade point average and comparable grades in math and English classes as students who did pass the state test; passing college-level for dual credit courses; or passing a locally determined course or test approved by the State Superintendent.
Proponents for the test passage requirement say it shows students have the basic math and language skills needed for college or a career, therefore rightfully earning their diploma.
The issue “is about holding the students accountable,” said state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “If you have graduation requirements, then they are required to learn the material before they earn their diploma.”
Test passage also ensures students take the standardized exams seriously, an important part of collecting accurate data to measure the quality of education in Washington schools, they say.
Those tests are at the heart of the “school accountability movement,” which has roots as far back as the 1960s and was stoked by former President Ronald Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” report, according to the George W. Bush Institute. School accountability is directed at creating and tracking “rigorous academic standards” to ensure schools were meeting their responsibility to adequately educate students, according to the Bush Institute.
Former President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” act, passed in the early 2000s, required all states to track and share whether their students were meeting the state’s education standards. Prior to that requirement, annual exams were not given in most states, and the results of those tests were not often shared, according to the institute.
As more states started offering standardized tests, popularity for making them part of graduation requirements increased. In 2002, more than half the states required students to pass an “exit exam” before receiving their diploma, according to Education Week, a national news magazine.
“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,” a Tacoma News Tribune editorial against the bills stated last month.
But linking state tests to graduation has becoming increasingly less popular. In 2018 just 13 states still required an exit exam, according to Education Week.
Those opposed to the requirement — including Longview, Kelso and Castle Rock school administrators and the local and state teachers unions — argue that the link between state tests and graduation limit options for students, especially for those planning to go straight into apprenticeships or the workforce.
“Those standards that the state assessment is written to, those are written for college readiness ... to ensure all kids were ready for college,” Zorn said. “I think that was one of the primary flaws when they chose to link it. Not all kids are going to college. Most of our kids are not. They forced our kids into this college preparatory track that was not where they are heading in their future.”
Zorn highlighted how students interested in the trades often use applied geometry, not necessarily abstract calculus. Those students are well-versed in the mathematical concepts they will use everyday on the job, but they may not fare as well on a state test that measures their understanding of more abstract math, he said.
But that doesn’t mean those students aren’t learning and growing, said Castle Rock Superintendent Jim Mabbott.
“Students show our teachers every day what they know and what they’ve learned,” Mabbott said. He added that it’s more important to use high school classes to plan for college or a career, not to simply pass a test.
Severing the link between testing and a diploma would open up opportunity for students to take more electives to benefit their future career path, Zorn said.
“(Right now), students might have to take a test preparation course in lieu of being in a course that would be more closely aligned with their own aspirations,” Zorn said. “I think by delinking it, it just removes that need to choose a course that is simply designed to get them through that test.”
The Senate is considering two bills on the matter, both of which originated in the House and require schools to continue offering the state test for all students. House Bill 1089 would completely eliminate the state test from graduation requirements, while the Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1599 would keep the state test as one of eight pathways students can take to earn diplomas.
Many of those pathways include the current alternatives to the state test. However, H.B. 1599 also allows students to earn diplomas if they meet the standards of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery or complete certain trades training courses with math and English “equivalencies.”
With a 84-13 vote, H.B. 1089 passed the House. It was opposed by state Reps. Orcutt and Richard DeBolt, who represent parts of Cowlitz, Lewis, Clark and Thurston counties. However, other Cowlitz County representatives voted in favor of the bill.
Orcutt said he voted against the bill because it doesn’t do enough to hold high school students accountable for showing they’ve learned the required materials.
It’s counterpart bill, H.B. 1599, still provides a way for students to “prove they’ve learned the material” through testing or “alternate pathways,” Orcutt said. That bill passed with 91-4 approval of the House — including “yes” votes from Orcutt and DeBolt — and has advanced to the Senate to the Ways and Means Committee. (That committee considers the financial implications of a bill, and whether it can be reasonably funded.)
“I’ve had a few school districts come and talk to me about concerns they have with the test. I let them know we still need to hold students accountable to learning to make them show they’ve learned the materials,” Orcutt said.
Although the more strongly supported H.B. 1599 doesn’t completely eliminate graduation testing requirements it is a “reasonable approach” and a “good compromise,” Zorn said.
“It ensures the rigor that some were concerned about but also provides flexibility to the kids in our schools that I believe is really necessary.”