Let's get realistic about math and science tests

The state superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, makes his case for modifying the math and science requirements, on grounds of realism and allowing students enough time to get the classes to meet the tests.
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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

The state superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, makes his case for modifying the math and science requirements, on grounds of realism and allowing students enough time to get the classes to meet the tests.

My job as State Superintendent of Public Instruction is to be the voice of our state'ꀙs 1 million students and to think of what'ꀙs best for them. I strongly believe in high standards. As the former chair of the state House Education Committee, I led the way in passing House Bill 1209, the 1993 Education Reform Act that called for state graduation requirements. We are one of just 24 states that currently have high school exit exams, which places us far ahead of more than half the nation.

But I also strongly believe in being fair to our students. Right now, we'ꀙre not. One alternative to passing the high school math exam is to earn three credits of math and score at least a 470 on the SAT. According to the College Board, those requirements are enough to earn entrance into Eastern and Central Washington Universities and might be enough for entrance into Western Washington University and Washington State University. In other words, we'ꀙre expecting students to have college-ready skills just to receive a high school diploma. That's unrealistic.

I recently proposed changes to the math and science graduation requirements that call for students in the class of 2013 to pass all four state exams: reading, writing, math, and science. My plan basically calls for a continuation of our current math requirement through the class of 2014 (instituting the new requirement with the class of 2015) and a delay in science until the class of 2017.

While a large segment of legislators, stakeholders, and educators agrees with my plan, many don'ꀙt. And I understand why. We are all frustrated with our achievement in math and science, and with a further delay of the graduation requirements. But this class of 2013 timeline is one I inherited, and one I believe is not realistic.

Our new math and science learning standards won'ꀙt be tested until spring 2011 (math) and spring 2012 (science). That'ꀙs when the class of 2013, the first to be required to pass all four state exams, is in their 10th and 11th grade years, respectively. Courts have consistently ruled that students must have ample opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge that are being assessed. I'ꀙm no lawyer, but assessing new standards when the class of 2013 is already two or three years into high school doesn'ꀙt seem like ample time.

We have a unique opportunity in math and science to set the graduation bar at a rigorous yet realistic level. I will propose that the 2010 Legislature continue our current math requirement through the class of 2014, and that we have two tiers — Basic and Proficient — at which students in the class of 2015 can meet the graduation requirement. Many states, including Massachusetts, employ similar requirements. Students who pass at Proficient complete the requirement, but those who pass at the Basic level will have to earn a fourth math credit. I encourage you to ask any educator what'ꀙs harder: to pass the state math exam or to earn a fourth math credit? This isn'ꀙt lowering standards.

In science, I will ask that the graduation requirement be delayed until the class of 2017, today'ꀙs seventh graders. That will give them time to learn the new standards, and hopefully give our schools time to encourage more science instruction.

We teach reading, writing, and math in our classrooms every day. But what about science? I recently spoke with a sixth-grade teacher who said her district allows one hour of science instruction every two weeks because science isn'ꀙt tested at the state level in sixth grade. One hour every two weeks. Science needs to be taught in elementary and middle schools with the same instruction time as the other core subjects if we expect our high school students to pass a graduation exam.

It takes a leader to stand up and do the right thing when others might not agree. I have great faith in our students. We consistently finish near the top on national tests, such as the SAT, ACT, and NAEP.

My proposal is about fairness, plain and simple. We need to continue to have high standards and hold students accountable to ensure that they have the basic skills to move forward on whatever path they choose. I believe my proposal is the right thing to do for students and I encourage you to read more about it on our Web site. Randy Dorn is the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  

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