“Be afraid. Be very afraid,” is what I would have said to Washington State’s Class of 2019 students and their parents a year ago.

In July of 2011, the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction adopted Common Core State Standards. Since then, assessments required for high school graduation have become more difficult. Five years after adoption, things are starting to get real, especially for this year’s sophomores. The bar has been raised so high that without intervention from the State Board of Education, only about one-third of students in Washington State would meet the Math requirement by achieving Level 3 or better on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test. Through last spring, students were required to pass Math and English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) assessments, but those hoping to meet standards required for graduation at the end of this academic year (2016-2017) must show mastery of a third subject; science, by passing the End of Course (EOC) exam for Biology. Fortunately, the average pass rate for the test over the last three years was about 74%. Pass rates for the Math EOC and ELA tests during the same time period have been even higher, which indicates that the old standard were reasonable.

OSPI’s table of graduation requirements by year shows that during the transition to Math and ELA SBAC testing, which is aligned with Common Core State Standards, the bar for the skill set required for high school graduation rises higher each year until it reaches its maximum level for students in the Class of 2019. My daughter is one of those students. In 2015, Students Meeting Assessment Graduation Requirements data indicated that 79.1% of WA State students met the Math requirement by passing the EOC1 (Algebra) or EOC2 (Geometry) and 85.5% of students met the ELA requirement by passing the High School Proficiency Exam. Students who graduated last spring were allowed to do same, but were additionally offered the option of passing the SBAC Math or ELA for those subjects. Although students in the Class of 2017 and 2018 may meet their graduation requirements the same way as Class of 2016 did in Math (by passing the EOC for Algebra or Geometry), to meet the ELA requirement, they must pass the SBAC either as a sophomore or junior. Of the students who sat for the ELA exam last spring or passed it previously as sophomores, 75.5% met the standard. Class of 2019 students must pass the SBAC ELA, SBAC Math and Biology EOC. While the pass rate for the old test (HSPE) for Reading and Writing versus the new SBAC ELA hasn’t changed much, it is significantly lower for the newly required Math SBAC versus the old EOC1 or EOC2. In the spring of 2015, the first year the Math SBAC was administered in Washington State, excluding no score, only 29% of the 74,376 11th grade students who took the test passed it. Last spring, the pass rate rose to 34.7%. Because the test is not required for graduation for these students, some chose to opt out. To incentivise students to opt in, many Washington state colleges have agreed that students who achieve Level 3 or above on the Math and/or ELA SBAC, achieving College and Career Ready status, will not be forced to take remedial courses in those subjects.

Meeting the Math SBAC requirement is so much more difficult (that is to say, the test is so much more rigorous) than the math EOC requirement of past years, that OSPI decided to lower the graduation requirement bar. The initial goal was adjust the passing score for graduation for the SBAC so that the same percentage of students would meet the new standard as the average pass rate for the past three years for the old standard (see Setting the Minimum Scores for Graduation on the New Exit Exams for more info). A passing score on the old Math EOC could be mid-Level 1 range of the SBAC, described as, “student demonstrates minimal understanding of an ability to apply the mathematics knowledge and skills needed for success in college and careers as specified in the Common Core State Standards.”

Students who achieve this level meet the Graduation Requirement; however, they will be forced to take remedial math courses in college. And even though the equivalent pass rate for students in the Class of 2017 compared to the Class of 2014-2016 would mean setting the equipercentile to mid-Level 1 for the Math SBAC, the State Board of Education (SBE) instead set the bar at 60% through Level 2. An SBE Article claims that the SBE, “followed through on its equal impact philosophy, adopting a mid-Level 2 score requirement for the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessment (scale score: 2548), and followed the same philosophy for the Math End-of-Course exams. The SBAC math score (2595) was set to be commensurate with the ELA requirement. These minimum scores are just a little more than half way up the Level 2 scale; about 60% of the way between Levels 2 and 3.” This makes no sense – by eyeballing the data in the bar charts above, 60% of the way between Levels 2 and 3 sets the Math SBAC pass rate at about 42% of students versus the 79.1% average pass rate achieved by the students in the previous three years and the ELA SBAC pass rate at 51% versus 78.0%.

At the August 2016 Washington State Board of Education Meeting, “the Board passed a motion that: Prior to the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, the Board will review the minimum score on the mathematics Smarter Balanced assessment to earn a Certificate of Academic Achievement to determine whether or not the current minimum score needs to be changed,” but no action was taken on this issue at the most recent WA SBE Meeting earlier this month. Instead, they increased the number of options that students will have to meet minimum graduation requirements by: adjusting the Math and ELA Collections of Evidence Assessment scores, and allowing SAT Math and ELA and ACT ELA equivalent scores that students may use. The SAT scaled score of 410 for ELA means that the top 81% meet the standard, similarly the scaled score for math means that the top 77% meet the standard, equivalent to the number of students passing by the old, easier standard. That is to say, they raised the bar very high, lowered it a little, then added a bunch of other different bars at the same level of the original bar.

For local school districts, Anacortes, Coupeville and Oak Harbor, the number of 11th grade students who met the Level 3 or Level 4 standard for the ELA (including those students who previously passed) during the 2015 and 2016 spring testing windows was relatively high, but for Math, alarmingly low.

Fortunately, the number of Graduation Alternatives for students who don’t meet the ELA and/or Math SBAC Exit Exam requirements has increased, including Collection of Evidence, GPA Comparison and College Admission Tests.

In 2015, 10th grade students were only allowed to take the ELA SBAC, but in 2016, 10th graders were allowed to take the Math SBAC along with the ELA if they had completed Algebra 2 since the exam includes standards from that subject. There is one additional ray of hope on the horizon: House Bill 2556, “Modifies high school graduation requirements by eliminating the certificate of academic achievement,” was first read in January of this year. Proposed changes to the existing law include, “Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, students in grade twelve who have not met the state standard on the English language arts or mathematics statewide student assessment…must take and pass a locally determined course in the content area in which the student was not successful.” No action has been taken on this bill since 10 March, when by resolution, it was “reintroduced and retained in present status.”

Washington State students and their parents, especially those scheduled to graduate in the Class of 2019 and beyond, and more importantly, those who don’t test well, should pay careful attention to graduation requirements. Although your child may have difficulty passing the SBAC, the standards haven’t changed at all: Graduation Alternatives result in the same pass rate for students as before Washington adopted Common Core State Standards and are the best option for students who struggle with the SBAC.