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Diploma Hope Fading For 2,000 High Schoolers Who Failed Biology Exam

Kyle Stokes
FILE - Rainier Beach High School students celebrate at their graduation ceremony in Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium.

It's looking less and less likely state lawmakers will drop a graduation requirement currently standing between hundreds of Washington high school seniors and their diplomas.

This year, roughly 2,000 high schoolers passed all the tests they needed to graduate except one: biology. But with time running out in their session, legislators remain deadlocked over a proposal to drop biology as a graduation requirement.

"It's not too late, this still could get done on the floor, but with each passing hour, I'm less and less optimistic," said Ben Rarick, executive director of the State Board of Education and a chief advocate for getting rid of the requirement.

Students in this year's senior class are the first who must pass the biology end-of-course exam to graduate. Many students who don't pass fulfill the requirement by submitting a portfolio of work samples proving they understand the material. This year, an unusually large number of students not only failed the biology exam, but also saw state-appointed evaluators reject their portfolios as insufficient.

Rarick argued the biology requirement is already outdated. Washington state is beginning to roll out a comprehensive new set of science standards that covers a broad range of science subjects, so he said it makes little sense to base students' graduation on their knowledge of a narrow subject area.

"We're left with an End-of-Course Assessment that [tests] a class that some kids take as a ninth grader, and many take as a tenth grader. That doesn't seem to be the best policy," Rarick said.

But finding a solution has been politically complicated. On Monday, House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill — for the third time this year — that drops the biology requirement. But the House bill also green-lights massive changes to the slate of assessments high schoolers would have to take; changes Rarick has also said he opposes.

But the Senate has been reluctant to take up the bill anyway. Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, has said he wants more information about why so many students didn't meet the requirement. He has also called for a more deliberate discussion of the state's exams for high schoolers before enacting major changes.

Legislative inaction may not be the only thing separating those 2,000 students from a diploma. It's possible some of these students don't have enough course credits to graduate or failed to turn in a required post-high-school plan; school districts do not report this information to the state.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.