Starting next year, students in Washington will no longer have a pass a state-issued test to qualify for their high school diploma, thanks to a bill passed by state lawmakers toward the end of this year’s legislative session.
For leaders in the Centralia and Chehalis School Districts, that’s a welcome development, one that will allow students who have completed the coursework requirements put in place by the state and local districts to graduate — even if they struggle on the test.
“We’ve had examples where kids are really diligent and good students, and for whatever reason are just not good on that particular test,” said Centralia High School Principal Josue Lowe. “We know that as far as that preparation goes, that a rigorous program is part of that. In terms of the number of credits that we’re requiring students to learn, it’s certainly indicative of that preparation. … Giving kids different pathways to demonstrate that they have learned what we set out to teach them is a good thing.”
The bill was met with a similar sentiment in Chehalis.
“Anything to eliminate a barrier and find ways for students to still demonstrate that they have met some standards without it strictly being a test is good,” said Ed Rothlin, superintendent of the Chehalis School District. “Some students don’t test well. The bottom line is they can demonstrate some standard we all expect them to have when they leave high school, and I think there’s more than one way to do that.”
The legislation removing the standardized testing requirement passed both the state House and Senate nearly unanimously. Washington had been one of the last remaining states to require graduates to pass a state-issued test to earn their diploma.
“It was always pretty artificial to believe that every student should be in the exact same place at age 18,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington State Superintendent of Public Schools. “The key is not to go back to a world where we graduate a kid who isn’t prepared — but to let them be prepared through coursework.”
Reykdal acknowledged that the test requirement disadvantaged English language learners and students who live in poverty. Meanwhile, districts with a larger tax base and more resources are able to provide students with more advantages in preparing for the test, whereas places like rural areas and Indian reservations struggle to keep up.
The bill was a priority of the Quinault Indian Nation’s legislative efforts this year, said Tyson Johnston, the tribe’s vice president.
“(Testing) shouldn’t be used to penalize students for a quality of education that is disparate depending on which zip code you live in. … Having this change helps us focus on some of those systemic issues that we need to have conversations about.”
Another criticism is that the test is not culturally appropriate for all students, meaning the wording of some questions may contain scenarios that learners in impoverished or minority communities are not familiar with. The standardized test also fails to account for other kinds of learning, such as cultural education and traditional skills. Being denied a diploma is such a setback, Johnston said, that it’s important students are provided opportunities beyond the test to graduate.
“Most basic job requirements require a high school diploma. If you don’t have that, you’re pretty much left out of participating in majority society,” he said. “There’s a linkage between that and things you’re seeing with drug abuse, substance abuse. … A lot of our kids are actually really smart and have great life stories, but none of that’s taken into account when you’re trying to cookie-cutter everybody.”
Despite the new law, standardized tests will still be administered, just not as a condition of graduation. Educators say the tests are still important, providing a metric that shows where they can improve and measure progress. Lowe acknowledged that there is some concern in keeping test scores up once students no longer need them to graduate.
“When the measuring stick is an assessment that doesn’t have a culminating piece attached to it, it is really up to the kids’ own internal motivation,” he said. “We want them to do their very best on this test. … We are going to have to go back into that arena cheerleading our students on this.”
Centralia is currently phasing in a trimester system to meet new state credit requirements, as well as new standards applied by the district. Lowe said that the coursework will cover a rigorous set of topics, ensuring students are well-rounded when they graduate. Meanwhile, the district has a graduation success coordinator to help students who may be falling behind their graduation requirements.
“To give people additional pathways to get to the high school diploma is really important,” Rothlin added. “We’ll take a look at these multiple pathways and integrate them into all students who are having a difficult time.”