More than 20 years ago, then-Gov. Mike Lowry articulated the importance of linking standardized tests to graduation requirements for Washington high school students: “These reforms were historic because, for the first time in our state’s history, they made schools and students accountable for learning — not just following regulations or sitting through the required number of classes.”
The Legislature should heed those words as it considers removing the requirement. Accountability is essential to ensuring that all high schools in the state are meeting basic requirements in preparing students for the future.
Senate Bill 6144, which currently is in committee, states “the Legislature intends to eliminate nonfederally required tests, and remove the statewide assessments as a high school graduation requirement in order to create a balanced education system.” A similar bill is in committee in the House.
Standardized tests are a political football, attracting opposition from teachers who say focus should be on learning rather than preparing for tests. Teachers also say the tests can result in a misleading snapshot of a student’s ability. As Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who has worked as a teacher and teacher coach, wrote in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times last year: “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 Scranton sheet, they freeze up. . . . Standardized tests have a place in our education system. But linking them to graduation was a mistake.”
We disagree. As The Columbian wrote editorially last year, “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.” Expecting students to demonstrate proficiency in core subjects is perfectly reasonable and is reflective of the workplace that students soon will be expected to enter.
Equally important, data from standardized tests is valuable in assessing the effectiveness of individual schools. Inevitably, some high schools are more academically rigorous than others, and information from standardized tests helps to ensure that a diploma from every Washington high school has value. As Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, said, “We will have no competency-based evidence about performance without this test; you don’t have data about how the system is working.”
Washington has taken steps to improve that system. A new state plan for identifying schools that require help was approved by federal officials last week, and state superintendent Chris Reykdal said it “will define education in Washington for years to come.” The problem is that, if standardized tests are no longer necessary for graduation, students will have no reason to take them or no reason to take them seriously — and the results will be meaningless for assessing a school as a whole.
The bottom line is that Washington taxpayers deserve accountability from schools. Such accountability requires objective tests that demonstrate whether students have earned their diploma or simply been passed along with a wink and a nod by administrators in a particular district.
Some students and many teachers might be frustrated by standardized testing, and there likely is room for improvement to the process. But removing testing from graduation requirements would be a step backward for the state.