One of the late-session compromises that finally got our Legislature out of town last month was a change in Washington’s high-school testing laws. Senate Bill 6145 delays the requirement that high school seniors pass a high-stakes biology test before getting diplomas.
The compromise, led by Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, did not go nearly as far as the original reform proposal, which had passed overwhelmingly in the House. But the compromise does buy time by delaying the testing requirement for two years until a better science test is on line.
Keeping the graduation requirement on the books satisfies those who want to retain accountability, according to Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. This was the first year a science test was required; reading and writing test requirements began in 2008 and a math test was added in 2013.
SB 6145 lets about 2,000 students in the class of 2015 — who met other requirements for high school graduation — receive diplomas this year despite having failed the biology exam.
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The old law let students meet the requirement through an alternative that let them show they had mastered the material. But this alternative (known as a collection of evidence based on classwork) had proven difficult to meet and administer, and it was expensive — about $200 per student.
“It’s hard to believe every biology class in the state is the same,” Fraser told our editorial board last week. “In some cases they hadn’t taken biology for a year or two. It seemed arbitrary.’’
Eliminating the biology test for two years saves $3 million over the period.
Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, who now is running for state superintendent of public instruction, and Republican Rep. David Taylor of Moxie were co-sponsors of the original bill that would have eliminated the biology requirement and streamlined state testing to save some $30 million.
Their measure passed the House three times, the last by a 92-to-6 margin and was supported by state school superintendent Randy Dorn.
When Republicans controlling the Senate balked on grounds that it would water down standards and reduce accountability, Senate Democrats refused to provide votes to suspend Initiative 1351, the class-size reduction measure approved by voters last fall. This led to a major legislative tie-up during the early hours of July 1 — just as many expected to adjourn and go home after passing a budget.
The tie-up left the state with a possible $2 billion budget hole to pay for reducing class sizes. It took over a week to craft the compromise that undid the blockage.
On July 10 lawmakers finally adjourned after a record 176 days in session in a single year.
Eventually the state will have a single science test that evaluates students’ knowledge across a broader spectrum of disciplines that many believe will be fairer than the biology test.
Dorn hopes to bring back the long-term solution from Reykdal and Taylor’s bill next year.
In the meantime, Fraser deserves credit for finding a middle ground, and so do members of both parties who were working across the aisle in the House to fix a problem with a flawed test — and those in the Senate who got on board. The long-term solution also reduces overall testing.
Wilcox says cooperation on this issue is one example of lawmakers working more across the aisle in the House on some education issues than in the Senate. That speaks well for the House.