Politics & Government

House panel: delay science-test grad requirement to 2017

In a disputed House Education Committee vote Monday, majority Democrats pushed through a delay in the high-stakes science test requirement for high-school graduation. House Bill 1410 passed 11-to-9 on strict partisan lines and is expected to save $20 million.

The savings come from eliminating a redundant end-of-course science test for the Class of 2013, which already has a comprehensive test in place. Under the bill students in the Classes of 2014 and thereafter still must take the end of course tests, but the requirement for graduation – that students must pass the science test for a full certificate of mastery – is delayed until the Class of 2017.

The bill is considered necessary to pass the budget because of its savings, but it still must clear the House floor and the Senate. Both chambers are negotiating a budget for 2011-13 that bridges a $5.3 billion shortfall with more than $4 billion in spending cuts.

High school seniors already must pass high-stakes tests for reading and math. Representatives of leading education advocacy groups such as the League of Education Voters and Stand for Children expressed disappointment over the science-test requirement. Jim Kainber of Stand for Children said it was ridiculous and noted Democrats were voting against doing something the Obama administration favors.

Rep. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican and the ranking minority member on the committee, had proposed an amendment to save $20 million by only eliminating the redundant test for the Class of 2013. Dammeier wanted to keep the end-of-course test requirement students in the Class of 2014 and beyond, but majority Democrats on the committee rejected that.

Dammeier and other Republicans said states like Massachusetts have the high-stakes tests and also have higher student performance in science. They said a delay of the graduation requirement lowers the urgency of science competency at a time that firms like Boeing and Microsoft need more workers proficient in the sciences.

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, the Democratic committee chair from Seattle, denied the bill lowers standards. Santos said students in the class of 2013 already are taking a comprehensive science test and students after that will take the end-of-course tests in science.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, questioned the value of the science test itself. He said Massachusetts invests more in its schools and has higher teacher pay than Washington. Conversely, Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said some states that don’t use the tests have higher student achievement in science.

The committee vote was 11 Democrats in favor, nine Republicans against and one Republican absent. Among South Sound lawmakers, those in favor were Reps. Fred Finn of Thurston County, Kathy Haigh of Shelton, Hunt, and Connie Ladenburg of Tacoma; voting no were Reps. Dammeier, Jan Angel of Port Orchard and J.T. Wilcox of Yelm.

Santos also tabled HB 2115, which would have given more time for school districts to hand out “RIF” or reduction in force notices to teachers whose contracts are not renewed.

The current deadline is May 15, and most districts are putting out notices without knowing exactly what funding they will get from the state for the 2011-12 school year.

Rep. Hunt had an amendment allowing districts to wait on notifying teachers until 30 days after the governor signs a budget bill into law.

HB 2115 was considered broad enough that Republicans and sympathetic Democrats might have been able to add an amendment to require that any teacher layoffs this year be based on performance and not seniority. Democrats had blocked another bill that could have allowed such an amendment, too, according to school reform advocates.

But Santos and Hunt said the RIF bill was offered too late to give school districts much relief this year. Hunt said Olympia’s superintendent was notifying teachers Monday of layoffs.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall-City, agreed the bill was late. But he said after the vote that he also suspects Democrats’ fear of the performance-related layoff amendment was an undercurrent.

The Senate voted during its regular session in favor of a budget for 2011-13 that assumes a performance-based layoff priority for school districts. But the House’s once-approved budget did not.

Tuesday, May 10, marks the 15th day of the 30-day special session.