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Guest Opinion: Be realistic about standards

My job as state superintendent of public instruction is to be the voice of our state’s 1 million students. In every policy decision I make, I think of our students and what’s best for them.

First, I want to make one thing clear: 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 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.

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’t. 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’t be tested until spring 2011 (math) and spring 2012 (science). That’s 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’m no lawyer, but assessing new standards when the class of 2013 is already two or three years into high school doesn’t 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 highly regarded Massachusetts, employ similar requirements. Students who achieve proficient complete the requirement, but those who pass at the basic level will have to earn a fourth math credit, which is one more than the state requires. I encourage you to ask any educator what’s harder: to pass the state math exam or to earn a fourth-math credit. That’s not lowering standards.

In science, I will ask that the graduation requirement be delayed until the class of 2017, which is today’s seventh-graders. That will give them time to learn the new standards, and hopefully give our educators 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’t 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 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT and the ACT.

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 superintendent of public instruction for Washington state.


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