Jesus Celes earned a B when he took biology in high school, but the subject is nonetheless keeping him from getting his high school diploma.
The 18-year-old just finished his senior year at Washington High School in Parkland. Yet because he has was unable to pass the state’s biology end-of-course exam, he didn’t graduate with his classmates earlier this month.
Celes was in Olympia Thursday to help make the case for changes to the state law. He is one of nearly 2,000 seniors this year who have passed state tests in math, reading and writing, but have been unable to pass the state test in biology, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The class of 2015 is the first group of Washington students that must pass the biology test or complete an approved alternative to earn a high school diploma.
While some students who have failed to meet the biology requirement may also be missing coursework that could keep them from graduating, Celes said he has done everything else he must do, including earning enough credits and meeting the other state testing requirements. It’s just the state’s biology test that is holding him back, he said.
“It’s heartbreaking for me,” said Celes, who said he wants to attend Pierce College and then pursue a career in law enforcement. “How can I go to college if I don’t have a diploma?”
Some lawmakers are looking to eliminate the biology test requirement to help students like Celes graduate. But while legislation to do that has passed the state House, the state Senate has yet to take up the issue.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said he is concerned that getting rid of the biology test requirement will actually hurt students by letting them graduate without proving they have adequate knowledge of science.
“We need to make sure they’re prepared,” said Dammeier, who is the vice chairman of the Senate education committee. “It’s a more challenging world they’re entering than the world I entered. We know that science, technology, engineering and math are key to their success....to back away from higher standards, I think is a mistake.”
But State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, said at a Thursday press conference with Celes that the Legislature needs to act now. Legislation Reykdal sponsored would eliminate the biology test as a graduation requirement until it can be replaced with a more comprehensive science test. Reykdal’s bill also would allow students who fail state tests in math and language arts to meet graduation requirements by taking additional coursework in those subject areas.
House Bill 2214 cleared the House for a second time Thursday, after already winning House members’ approval during the Legislature’s first special session that ended last month.
Reykdal said his bill wouldn’t make high school standards less rigorous; rather, it would require students who struggle with the state tests to take college-transition courses that prepare them even better for post-high school careers, he said.
“We have a solution here that would help Jesus and his peers,” Reykdal said. “We are confident it is a rigorous solution.”
“It’s actually a raising of the standards, but it’s allowing students to demonstrate it in a different way,” he added.
Reykdal said the state’s current standardized tests also have a cultural bias, especially for those whose native language isn’t English.
That has been a barrier for Celes, who moved to Washington five years ago from Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the West Pacific.
“When I came to Washington, my language, a lot of my teachers couldn’t understand me,” said Celes, who spoke primarily Chamorro before coming to Washington as an eighth grader. “It hasn’t been easy for me to adjust, but I worked hard.”
Celes said two of the times he took the biology test, he failed it by only one point.
“Every time it comes back, I’m always a point short,” Celes said. “It’s that feeling you get when see you’re about to grab it, but it then just goes away.”