How to fix Washington's graduation standards

Test scores are up, but there still are many public-school students who graduate unprepared for college or the workforce. And the WASL test requirement is not really enforced. A co-author of the 1993 law that was intended to reform the system explains how to get standards-based education back on track. Second of two parts
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Test scores are up, but there still are many public-school students who graduate unprepared for college or the workforce. And the WASL test requirement is not really enforced. A co-author of the 1993 law that was intended to reform the system explains how to get standards-based education back on track. Second of two parts

Editor's note: The author is a former state representative and former chair of the state Republican Party. This is the second of two parts. The first part was posted on Tuesday, Sept. 18.

It was always assumed that wholesale reform of public education in Washington would be difficult. As any profession or established system would be, the education community resisted change. Many educators are hostile to the very idea of high-stakes testing. The Commission on Student Learning, which was charged with deciding how to implement a "Performance Based Education System," was comprised mostly of education professionals. So it was always assumed that leadership on this issue would continue to come from the Legislature. Unfortunately, virtually all of us who worked on education reform left the Legislature shortly after those reforms were passed in 1993. The politicians who cared the most about implementing the changes enacted by our bill, H.B. 1209, were no longer there to spur things along.

What really set reform back, however, were the extremely high failure rates in the early years of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). H.B. 1209 required all students to pass the high school assessment. It was a minimum graduation requirement. The bill anticipated that "most students" would pass in 10th grade.

When we started testing, however, most 10th graders did not pass. In 1998, the first year of the 10th grade test, only 51 percent passed the reading portion, 41 percent passed the writing portion, and only 33 percent passed the math test. Scores like these continued for several years. With failure rates this high, resistance to accountability hardened within the education community. Who wants to be held accountable to results like that? Critics questioned the validity and fairness of the WASL, claiming the bar was set too high for a minimum graduation requirement. Deregulation and local control went by the wayside as the state superintendent of public instruction tried to raise scores by aligning local curricula to what were called Essential Academic Learning Requirements and the WASL. In short, the crisis of low test scores distorted the reform process.

Today, test scores are much better. In the most recent WASL testing period, 81 percent of 10th graders passed the reading portion, 84 percent passed the writing portion, and 50 percent passed the math test. Part of this improvement is a result of the state tinkering with the test and essentially lowering the bar a bit. At the same time, it is clear that the intense focus on passing the WASL has raised student achievement somewhat.

As a parent, I can tell you that high school is much more difficult now than it was 30 years ago. We have raised expectations, and there has been some improvement in national test scores. Critics may not trust the WASL, but there is one standards-based test that is widely accepted, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Administered by the federal government, the NAEP is known as "the nation's report card." Washington's fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP scores in math and reading have improved over the past 10 years of WASL implementation.

At the same time, in 2005, 25 percent of Washington's eighth-graders failed to achieve "basic" level in NAEP reading and math assessments. The high-school dropout rate remains at 25 percent. Nearly half of our high school graduates who enroll in community or technical college still need to take remedial math courses, and only 30 percent of Washington's high school freshman are going on to college [468K PDF] four years later, far below the 53 percent median percentage of the top five performing states.

This is the real crisis of accountability. Education reform was not intended to help the high achievers achieve more, it was designed to prevent at-risk kids from falling through the cracks. By setting minimum mandatory standards, we intended to prevent schools from passing on from one grade to the next kids who weren't learning the basics and weren't ready for post-secondary education or the workforce. Without the accountability measures called for in H.B. 1209, especially the mandatory graduation requirement, common sense and all available data indicate that practice continues today. Without clear standards and real accountability, we are failing the kids who need help the most.

Unfortunately, the political tide seems to be running the wrong way. Every year, WASL critics get closer to passing legislation to do away with the graduation requirement altogether. This process was begun in the political arena, and that is where the battle will be won or lost.

Our great mistake in 1993 was allowing the Commission on Student Learning to set the bar and define the minimum graduation requirement. We felt that this task was best left to "experts" rather than 147 politicians sitting on the floor of the House and Senate. We were wrong. Reform this fundamental needs to be compelled from without, rather than evolve from within.

It's not too late. It has always been the responsibility of the people's representatives to define what constitutes a basic education. The governor and Legislature need to debate and settle the core issue of what constitutes the minimum we expect of students before we hand them a high school diploma. The elected officials need to ask themselves if they trust the SPI and State Board to fix the math test and complete the rest of the work on standards. If not, there is now a huge body of research from around the country on standards and tests that work. If we don't trust the WASL, the Legislature should pick another existing system and direct the SPI and State Board to align our standards and tests accordingly.

At the same time, the Legislature and governor need to resurrect the issue of educational deregulation and local control. If we are truly going to make the system accountable to results, rather than process, we don't need the bureaucratic time measurements of the Basic Education Act of 1977, and we certainly don't need to force school districts to all teach the same way.

Finally, our elected officials need to fully commit to real accountability. Pass the state intervention and rewards systems that have been studied to death the past 14 years. Most importantly, once we finally have standards and assessments we can trust, enforce the high school graduation requirement. Eliminate the alternatives; either our test works or it doesn't. If kids fail to pass, get them help and hold people accountable rather than lowering the bar or pushing back the deadline. Without accountability, the reform process is nothing but more tests layered onto the existing system.

In 1993, as I stood in the wings of the House floor in Olympia, watching the final moments of the final debate on H.B. 1209, I was sure we had accomplished something that would fundamentally change public education. My son was 2 years old. Today he is two years away from starting college. I am confident that he and his sister are getting an outstanding education. Unfortunately, I am also confident that many other kids continue to move through our schools unprepared for the world after high school. We had the right vision 14 years ago. It's time for this generation of politicians to firmly and finally finish the job.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.