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High School Testing Bill Stalls, Putting Fate Of 2,000 Students' Diplomas In Doubt

David Goldman
AP Photo
FILE - A student lines up for the procession at his high school graduation in Griffin, Ga., in 2014.

More than 2,000 high school seniors in Washington state appear unlikely to graduate this year because they didn't pass a required biology test.

But while their predicament has caught Olympia's attention, a last-minute push to let those students get their diplomas anyway appears to have stalled in the State Senate as lawmakers debate what tests to link to graduation going forward.

State Board of Education board members have been pushing lawmakers to do away with the biology requirement — and not just to give 2,000 high school seniors a break.

The board's executive director, Ben Rarick, argued it's becoming outdated to require students to master a narrow subject at the same time as Washington schools are rolling out new science standards covering a broad range of subjects, from physics to chemistry to astronomy.

"We were still clinging to a science graduation requirement that was limited to one class," Rarick said, "and we felt like those two policy elements were and are in conflict."

House lawmakers had passed a bill immediately de-coupling the biology requirements from graduation, allowing those 2,000 students to collect their diplomas in the coming weeks.

But House Bill 2214 would do more than that. As soon as the state can develop an exam measuring students' knowledge of the new comprehensive science requirements, the Next Generation Science Standards, the bill would link that exam to students' graduation.

And that's not all: in mathematics and English Language Arts, the bill would also require students to pass the Smarter Balanced exams to graduate — a much higher bar, given that perhaps as many as two-thirds of students might not be able to pass the new  Common Core-linked tests.

Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, says he has no plans to hear the bill. A spokesman for Litzow says he had planned a more comprehensive discussion of what tests are needed for graduation after the session wraps up.

Litzow also wanted more information about why students who didn't pass the biology exams didn't earn their diplomas using the customary alternative — by turning in a portfolio of work proving they understood the material.

Some Senate Democrats tried to pull an end-around on Thursday and send the bill to a committee other than Litzow's, pleading unsuccessfully with Republicans to move quickly.

“I believe a majority of the members present in this chamber would like to see [this requirement] lifted immediately so those kids can go on and participate in their senior year ceremonies and graduate over the next few weeks,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

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