Saturday, January 28, 2023
Jan. 28, 2023

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In Our View: Flunk Exam for Biology

Tying graduation to standardized tests justified, but this test is clearly flawed

The Columbian

For some high school seniors throughout Washington, the opportunity to walk across the stage, smile, shake hands, and receive a diploma in the coming weeks is dependent upon the Legislature. That is because several hundred students have been unable to pass the state’s standardized biology test — one of three basic knowledge exams that are required for graduation, along with English and math.

Problematically, the biology test is outdated, with state officials having adopted new science standards and preparing a new general science exam for future graduation requirements. Given that fact and the fact that failure rates for the biology exam are more than twice that of the English exam and four times that of the math exam, lawmakers should step in. Allowing students who have met all other requirements to graduate would appropriately serve those students.

Yet while some leeway should be allowed regarding the biology test, the situation also provides an opportunity to reiterate the value of standardized tests as a graduation requirement. The Legislature approved such requirements in 1993, and in 1996 Gov. Mike Lowry vetoed a bill to overturn those requirements, writing, “These reforms were historic because, for the first time in our state’s history, they made schools and students accountable for learning — not just for following regulations or sitting through the required number of classes.”

That is an essential distinction, and it marks Washington as a state where a diploma is meaningful. It assures that a student has learned rather than simply attended, and that they have a basic level of preparation for the world beyond high school. Effective preparation requires accountability for both schools and students, and holding both parties to a minimum standard is a reasonable expectation.

Not everybody agrees with that. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, vice chair of the House Education Committee, recently wrote in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times, “Some students are simply not great at taking tests. Many have high GPAs, robust vocabularies and critical thinking skills, but when put in a high-pressure environment with a No. 2 pencil and a Scantron sheet, they freeze up. … Standardized tests have a place in our education system. But linking them to graduation was a mistake.”

We disagree. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, as of May 3, 81 percent of seniors in the state had passed all three required tests. The tests are first administered during junior year, and students may retake them. In addition, there are other academic achievements that can allow students to graduate without passing a particular test.

Using the argument that some students do not test well ignores the accountability that taxpayers should expect from students, teachers and administrators. The guess is that few future employers would be sympathetic to an employee saying they failed a task because they do not perform well under pressure.

That being said, we can find sympathy for those who have struggled with the biology exam. About 3,300 students have passed the other two tests but not biology, while about 2,500 have failed only one of the others. That suggests that the problem lies as much with the biology exam as with the students.

The Senate twice this year has passed a bill that would eliminate the biology requirement, but the House has taken no action. The Legislature should act quickly to ensure that otherwise qualified students have an opportunity to walk across a stage and receive a diploma this year.