Senate Democrats had reason for acting as they did

Sometimes the best-intended ideas have unintended consequences.

When that happens, and it becomes clear that a policy is failing the people it was designed to help, it is the duty of the Legislature to fix that policy.

That is the case with high-stakes testing.

For years the Legislature has altered when tests were required for graduation, changed the tests themselves and changed the learning standards on which tests are built. We continue to move the goal posts and then act surprised when our kids struggle.

One of the most recent changes involving the state’s science test is about to result in 2,000 high school seniors not being able to graduate. These kids played by the rules, studied hard, passed all other required courses and state tests and now their academic futures are in doubt.

If 2,000 intelligent and in many cases college-bound students fail a single test, does that reflect poorly on these kids or does it reflect poorly on this policy?

That’s why Senate Democrats did what we did Wednesday morning. We feel strongly that it is simply unfair to ask a high school senior to “let it ride” on one single test. What does it say about the rest of that student’s entire academic career when poor performance on one test on one day can derail graduation?

We are not alone in this belief. Three times this year, our colleagues in the House – Republicans and Democrats – overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2214, which will reform our state’s entire high-stakes testing system. This will allow 2,000 kids to graduate this year and reform this broken system for students in the future.

This solution is a way to maintain high standards, but give kids a chance to show they’ve met those standards through additional coursework instead of more high-stakes tests.

If this bill lowered academic expectations, a whopping 92 House Republicans and Democrats wouldn’t have joined forces to pass this bill for a third time just four days ago in a last-ditch effort to fix the system.

But just like before, Senate Republicans neglected to even give the bill a hearing, let alone debate its merits.

That’s why Senate Democrats did what we did Wednesday morning. The state’s operating budget is signed. A government shutdown is no longer a possibility. The major decisions surrounding transportation and construction projects throughout our state are agreed to.

The main issues that divided us are resolved, with the exception of the delay of Initiative 1351. The voter-approved class-size-reduction initiative is a noble but very expensive idea. It is estimated that it will cost $2 billion to fully implement. Changing an initiative requires the support of two-thirds of each chamber – a supermajority. Senate Republicans did not consult with us on the plan to delay implementation of I-1351 or that they would need our votes to do so until late Monday.

When we were finally consulted, we were clear with Senate Republicans – if you expect us to vote for something that hurts kids, you better help us do something to help kids. We asked for HB 2214.

After 14 hours of hearing nothing, at around 3 a.m. Senate Republicans finally said they would essentially grant a waiver for the 2,000 kids who failed the biology test, but only on the condition of yet another onerous change to the testing system. We believe that change would do nothing to fix the system and in fact would leave thousands of students at further risk of not graduating in the future. We saw that as doubling down on an already broken system.

What would this mean for next year’s seniors? What about the class after them and all kids who will again be asked to gamble their past academic achievements on one test? Our broken high-stakes testing system needs to be fixed for everyone, and it needs to be fixed now.

But Senate Republicans refused to budge and the suspension of I-1351 failed.

As the governor’s budget director said Wednesday, this is a problem, not a crisis. We need to address I-1351 and the hole it has left in our budget. And we will.

Of more pressing and immediate concern, however, is addressing our broken system of high-stakes tests. Let’s ensure that all students are judged by the entire body of their academic successes and not by an isolated snapshot of how they perform on a single test on a single day.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson is the Senate minority leader. She represents the 34th Legislative District, which includes Vashon and Maury Islands as well as West Seattle, North Highline and Burien.