A change of focus in American education has taken place over the past two decades. In 2002, more than half the states required students to pass an academic proficiency test in order to graduate from high school; today, 12 states have such a requirement.
As Washington officials join that trend by formulating multiple paths to graduation, they must ensure that students still are held to rigorous standards that prepare them for college, advanced technical training or to enter the workforce out of high school. There is no single path to a successful and productive career, but policymakers should be wary of expecting too little from students.
In April, the Legislature passed a law — unanimously in both chambers — partially de-linking standardized tests from graduation standards. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, was the lead sponsor of House Bill 1599, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 7. Now, the Washington State Board of Education is finalizing new graduation requirements and is expected to adopt them Nov. 7.
In addition to earning enough credits and completing a High School and Beyond Plan, next spring’s graduating students will have several options for earning a diploma. They still may demonstrate proficiency by passing standardized tests, but the legislation also allows for college credit through dual-credit programs or career and technical training to count toward high school graduation. There are other options, as well.
Adding multiple avenues might be beneficial for many students. Not every student is interested in or capable of attending a four-year college, nor is such a pathway necessary to be a productive member of society. But even those students who move directly from high school to the workforce will benefit from robust standards that prepare them for a career and indicate to potential employers that Washington graduates are productive workers.
In codifying the new standards, the state board must ensure that expectations for students are not set too low in an effort to boost graduation rates; a high school diploma must be meaningful. On the use of tests for graduation, former Gov. Mike Lowry once said: “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.”
That reflected the societal thinking of the time, a mantra that states have gradually come to reject. As Lillian Pace of KnowledgeWorks explained to Education Week: “We’re seeing a lot of momentum in states across the country around this idea of creating assessments that address student learning in more meaningful ways. Nobody right now has the answer, but there is a lot of energy to try to figure out what we could do better.”
Indeed, education has been altered by technology and by increased attention to underserved demographics — be it racial or geographic. But instructing in meaningful ways that demands high achievement must remain the goal. Legislators and policymakers must keep a close eye on the impact of the new standards to ensure that Washington students are receiving the best possible education and that they are wholly prepared for life after high school.
Education policy is a constantly moving target. But regardless of the thinking at a particular time, students should be challenged throughout their academic careers and should be held to standards that demonstrate achievement rather than attendance.