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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington high schools do away with federal testing requirements, create seven pathways for student success

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Depending on whom you talk to, the Washington state Board of Education has either diluted the value of a high school diploma or made it more relevant in the real world.

Either way, counselors in every high school in the state are spending more time working on the most appropriate path for each student.

Starting this school year, Washington students won’t need to pass a federal test to earn a high school diploma.

Instead, there are now seven pathways, and districts will have some flexibility in how they’re crafted.

The Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a set of graduation pathways and other rules at its recent meeting in Bremerton.

The changes reflect two considerations: that college isn’t for everyone, and that college-bound students shouldn’t be derailed by one failed exam.

The latter situation struck close to home, when a Spokane-area student in Running Start had been accepted to Whitworth University but was in danger of failing to get a high school diploma because she hadn’t passed the math portion of the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

“That was a great example of why they’ve made the change,” said Scott Kerwein, the director of college and career readiness for Spokane Public Schools.

“It strikes a balance for sure,” Kerwein said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Spokane and other districts have heard from local employers who need skilled workers.

Last year, according to the Education Research and Data Center, about 34% of Washington students enrolled in a four-year college the year after they graduated, 28% pursued a two-year or technical degree and 38% didn’t enroll in a higher education program.

“We hear from industries in our area that they are retiring a lot of workers,” Kerwein said. “They want students to understand that trades are an option.”

Not coincidentally, some of those trades are growing thanks in part to the district’s successful bond measure in 2018, which will lead to the construction of six middle school buildings and other projects.

The message from industry is, “Now you can earn a living wage building those schools,” Kerwein said.

Now it’s up to districts to lay out those pathways. There are seven, and each student must pass one of them.

1. Passing Smarter Balanced Assessments. These tests measure understanding of English and math.

2. Earning college credit through dual-credit programs with a local university or college. These programs partner the high school with a college.

3. Passing Advanced Placement exams.

4. Passing college admissions exams. Students who meet certain requirements on the SAT and ACT can use their test scores to pass the state requirement.

5. Passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, which is required to enter the armed services.

6. Earning credits through career and technical education (CTE) courses.

7. Taking Bridge to College courses.

However, Spokane and some other districts successfully appealed for a one-year extension, meaning the changes won’t apply to this year’s seniors.

However, Kerwein said high school counselors already are working with the junior class to identify appropriate pathways and determine who might benefit from the new rules, especially the CTE pathway.

Some of that work will fall on the shoulders of students, who must still meet credit requirements and complete a personalized “high school and beyond plan” that charts their career and education goals.

“This takes some emphasis off testing in our system, which is a positive thing,” said Randy Spaulding, the state board’s executive director. “It also puts students’ different pathways and their goals on a level playing field.”

Some critics believe the new rules lower the entire field and don’t guarantee equitable application of the CTE and military pathways.

“If you are a student who is graduating without a degree or the training to set them up for the next phase of their life, the stakes are extremely high,” said Libuse Binder, executive director at the nonprofit Stand for Children Washington.

“At the end of the day, we still feel that the bar is too low,” Binder told the Seattle Times.

The pathways proposal drew criticism as it worked its way toward approval, which came last month.

More than 450 people and organizations – including parents, advocacy groups, business leaders and lawmakers – submitted written comments, many of them critical.

In one letter to the board, a group of lawmakers who championed the state law that cut ties between graduation and the federal Smarter Balanced tests called the draft proposal “inconsistent with the intent of the Legislature.”

Lawmakers took particular issue with the proposed CTE pathway. The board’s proposal allowed students to take CTE courses in different disciplines. But according to the new law, students in such a pathway must take a sequence of related courses ensuring they’re prepared for additional training or to enter a career.