Biology test shouldn't prevent students' graduation

The Legislature must act immediately to make common sense changes to our confusing, expensive and burdensome system of student testing.

Why now? This is the first year that students must pass a biology assessment as a graduation requirement. Predictably, about 8,000 students statewide have not passed the test, including about 2,000 who tried but failed to meet the collection of evidence alternative this winter.

In Tacoma alone, 306 (17 percent) of our 1,766 active students in the Class of 2015 are in jeopardy of not graduating due just to the biology requirement. There goes our 78 percent graduation rate – all because of an unfair, high-stakes testing requirement.

Today, students in the Class of 2015 must pass tests in English language arts, math and biology to graduate from high school. State law requires that all students be given at least two opportunities to pass the test per year. If students fail, the most common alternative method for them to graduate from high school is via a collection of evidence, demonstrating they have met the state standard through course work.

This is the first year our Legislature has made the biology assessment a graduation requirement. Let’s use some common sense: Unlike math and language arts, schools don’t teach biology every day, in every grade. Many students take courses and excel in other areas of science – chemistry, zoology, geology and more. Is the Legislature really willing to deny graduation to thousands of students who have met every other requirement other than the new biology standard?

In future years, our state is transitioning to the more rigorous Common Core standards, and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) will become the new graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2019.

These assessments were created to establish college and career readiness, not to test proficiency for high school graduation. At least in the early years of the SBA, it is expected that only about one third of Washington’s students will pass the exam’s college and career ready cut score. Also, the assessments are given in the 11th grade. Students who fail would not have enough time to satisfy this graduation requirement if they failed the test a second time in the 12th grade.

We should be using testing to determine where students need help, not prevent them from graduating.

A bill currently before the Legislature, HB 2214, would eliminate the biology graduation requirement and other state tests. It would also change our system so that if students fail all or part of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, then we could use their senior year to help them catch up and meet the standard.

Under this legislation, students would take another class senior year in the subject they didn’t pass on the 11th-grade test as a way to help them graduate while meeting our new, higher standards.

We have substantially increased rigor in our schools in recent years by increasing the number of credits needed to graduate and moving to higher standards. Rigor is good. But graduation requirements must be realistic and fair.

The Legislature needs to address a number of issues related to assessments. Many of the issues are included in HB 2214. However, if lawmakers can’t agree on the broader set of issues, they at least need to provide relief regarding the current biology graduation requirement.

The biology requirement is part of a bigger problem, but it can, and must, be addressed now. Our students are set to graduate in early June. The Legislature needs to act on this issue before the end of the special session Thursday.

Carla Santorno is the superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, and Frank Hewins is the superintendent of the Franklin Pierce School District. This was submitted also on behalf of the following superintendents: Tom Seigel, Bethel; Chuck Cuzzetto, Peninsula; Debbie LeBeau, Clover Park; and Tim Yeomans, Puyallup.