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Inslee signs off on law allowing state to waive some graduation requirements for students during pandemic

UPDATED: Tue., March 2, 2021

North Central High School paraeducator Kelly Harmon, center, offers directions to a student looking for a classroom for the first time this school year earlier this month in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
North Central High School paraeducator Kelly Harmon, center, offers directions to a student looking for a classroom for the first time this school year earlier this month in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – Some high school students will be eligible for graduation requirement waivers if the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their schooling under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The bill, a more permanent extension of a measure passed last session, allows school districts to provide temporary waivers from testing requirements or credit requirements if a state of emergency disrupted their learning. It’s an effort to help some students who have struggled during the last year of online learning.

Students have shown “significant resilience” this year, Inslee said Tuesday.

“This bill will help students succeed in their life’s ambitions,” he added.

When granting these waivers, school districts must prove a “good faith effort” to support the student in meeting the requirements before one is granted, according to the bill. Students must also demonstrate that they are ready to graduate and prepared for their next steps in postsecondary education, employment and civic engagement.

The bill gives the State Board of Education permanent authority in granting these waivers for future states of emergency.

The statewide requirements for graduation include:

  • 24 total credits, including 17 mandatory core credits and seven elective credits.
  • Completing a state assessment program called Graduation Pathways that could include tests such as a state test, AP exams, the SAT or ACT and completion of college-level classes.
  • Schools already have the option to waive two of the elective credits if all the other requirements are met. If students have a specific plan beyond high school, but they failed an elective unrelated to that plan, schools are able to waive those credits.

School districts now have a bit more flexibility to waive the graduation pathway requirement if students could not complete in-person testing due to COVID-19. It also allows districts to waive more elective credits than the two they are currently allowed, but Scott Kerwien, director of college and career readiness at Spokane Public Schools, said counselors work to waive the fewest number of requirements they can .

“It’s not a magic wand-waving for all students,” Kerwien said in a January interview. “That would not encourage them to keep pushing toward the finish line. That’s nobody’s pursuit.”

Last year, 56 students in Spokane Public Schools received COVID-related waivers, according to the district. That’s about 2.9% of 2020 graduates. Statewide, 3.3% of students used an emergency COVID-19 waiver.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns that it could affect students’ preparedness for further education, but supporters said waivers aren’t given to everyone and were done on an individual basis.

“It gives hope to our students,” Cindy McMullen, of the Washington State School Association, told House Education Committee members in January.

Opponents also worried there was too little accountability for how the waivers were given out. To address this, the bill requires the State Board of Education to report data on how many students used waivers in 2020 and 2021 to the Legislature and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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