Lawmakers torn on graduation standards

Officials worry proposed tests that gauge college readiness not suited as requirement to graduate

msantos@theolympian.comFebruary 23, 2013 

A debate over the future of required tests in Washington schools centers on a key question: Should being ready for college be considered the same thing as being ready to graduate high school?

The state’s top education official has concerns about a proposal moving forward in the state Senate to tie graduation requirements to a new set of tests that are designed to gauge whether students are ready for college.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican who chairs the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, would replace the state’s five tests required for graduation with three assessments, two of which would align with college-readiness standards set by a multi-state coalition.

Right now, the state is set to begin testing how students meet a set of Common Core State Standards during the 2014-15 school year, but the tests wouldn’t be a graduation requirement — they would merely meet the assessment requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under Litzow’s proposal, the tests assessing the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and language arts would become a graduation requirement for today’s eighth-graders, the class of 2017. Those students would take the tests in their junior year, with retake opportunities twice yearly. They also would be required to pass a state-developed science test.

Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, said this week that the Common Core State Standards set too high of a bar, and should be tied to college admissions standards instead of graduation requirements.

A bill Dorn introduced this session would have taken steps toward accomplishing that, but the proposal failed to make it out of a House committee by Friday’s deadline.

The common core standards assessment “is a totally different type of test to gauge a totally different type of student,” Dorn said earlier this month when testifying in favor of his now-dead bill, House Bill 1450. Like Litzow’s proposal, Dorn’s bill would have also reduced the number of tests required for graduation from five to three, but wouldn’t have included the Common Core State Standards tests among the exams students must pass to graduate.

“That is definitely a much higher level of learning than a basic high school academic performance standard,” Dorn said during a hearing on Litzow’s bill, Senate Bill 5587. “We have a considerable number of students who would not make that college- and career-ready line.”

During the Feb. 18 hearing, Litzow asked Dorn how he thought the state should respond to concerns from the University of Washington and major employers that high schools aren’t preparing students for high-tech fields.

“We’re getting pressure from universities, particularly UW, saying ... ‘50 percent of the people you’re giving me, I’m having to go re-teach, which is driving up my costs,’” Litzow said. “We’re getting pressure from Boeing both on the mechanical side all the way up to Microsoft on the computer engineering side, saying, ‘You aren’t producing enough people with the degrees that can do this work.’”

All states administering the Common Core State Standards test will have to use the same minimum score to judge whether a student meets the college-ready standards, said Joe Willhoft, an OSPI employee who serves as the executive director of the The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the interstate coalition that is developing the tests.

But states using the test as a graduation requirement could — and probably should — set another, lower score cutoff that could be used to determine whether a student is ready to graduate, Willhoft told Litzow’s committee.

If a lower standard isn’t set for graduation, “The consequence of that would be that there would probably be only about 35 percent earning a high school diploma,” Willhoft said Feb. 18.

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, the chair of the House Education Committee that tabled Dorn’s bill regarding assessments, said she couldn’t say at this time whether she’d support using the Common Core State Standards tests as graduation exams.

“I think the real question is what those tests are going to look like,” said Santos, a Democrat from Seattle, on Friday. “I don’t know if you and I can stand here today and say whether that is the standard we want for graduation requirements.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 msantos@theolympian.com

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