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January 28, 2015 at 5:00 AM

End-of-course biology exam may go, but tougher standards loom

Corrected version

As Washington schools begin integrating rigorous Common Core standards into their classrooms, the state Board of Education has made several decisions about new tests tied to those standards, and what will happen to existing state exams.

First: They want to abolish the current end-of-course exam in biology, generally taken by 10th graders.

The thinking here is that focusing on biology undermines broader coursework in science-technology-engineering-and-math (the so-called STEM courses). The board voted unanimously on this decision, but it requires approval from the state Legislature — which is pretty busy with other things, like school funding. Sorry, Class of 2015, most likely you’ll still have to pass that test to graduate.

Looking ahead: Passing scores on the much-feared Smarter Balanced Assessment — the new tests based on Common Core standards — have been set.

But those exams, which will be given statewide for the first time this spring, won’t affect graduation — not this year.  The board will determine graduation cut-off scores in August, and those will affect the Class of 2019, this fall’s incoming ninth graders. Initially, the graduation bar will be lower than the passing score, giving teachers and students time to ramp up.

Though experts around the country have proffered various opinions about linking Common Core exams to graduation, the board’s two recent decisions signal what they want to see here: “Exit exams should play a part in how the state defines a meaningful high school diploma,” said Ben Rarick, executive director of the board. Pushing students to prove proficiency “sends an important message of urgency.”

(Running Start students and others in dual-enrollment programs have already demonstrated their ability to do college-level work and may be able to skip the tests, Rarick said.)

Despite the dry language, graduation requirements are a highly contentious issue.

In a video, the board’s research director, Linda Drake, attempts to sketch out testing plans and acknowledges “With all worthwhile change comes serious concerns.”

Historically, those worries have focused on the problem of creating a two-tiered system, where some students graduate with a diploma while others languish. But Washington’s board is, in fact, proposing a two-track scoring plan.

All third-to-eighth-grade students, and 10th graders, will see whether they passed the Common Core tests, and also whether they are on schedule for moving toward college-level work.

“Not only do we believe this is something we can do,” says Rarick, “but something we must.”

Correction: This post, originally published at 5 a.m., was corrected at 10:30 a.m. An earlier version gave an incorrect title for Ben Rarick. He is the executive director of the state Board of Education.

Comments | More in News | Topics: biology end-of-course, common core, State Board of Education


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