It’s Time To End High School Exit Testing in Washington State


It’s time to end exit testing requirements for Washington state high school students. Setting the bar high to ensure high school graduates achieve an adequate level of understanding in English, Math, and Biology is important. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires testing of high school students in these subjects, but requiring students to meet a cut score on exams for graduation only makes sense if doing so provides an academic or employment benefit to the students and/or society. It doesn’t.

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In the 2008 article, Exit exams harm the students who fail them and do not benefit the students who pass them. Now what?, authors Warren and Grodsky reviewed 30 years’ worth of data from Florida and California and concluded, that “graduation rates decline by about two percentage points” in states with “higher competency” exit exams. They “found no evidence for any effects of exit exams (minimum competency or higher competency) on reading or math achievement” at selected achievement distribution cut points. Further, they note that “Young high school graduates who obtained their diplomas in ‘exit exam states’ fared no better in in the labor market than their peers who obtained their diplomas in other states.”

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Here’s what happens according to Warren and Grodsky, “States begin by setting moderate to high standards and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars designing exit exams that purport to hold students to these standards. In short order, however, high failure rates and much-publicized legal challenges built on inequities in states’ education systems test the political will of policymakers to hold students to these standards. In the end, politics wins out over principle and the exit exam, the passing threshold, or both are altered to increase the share of students that passes the exam.” This is exactly what’s transpiring in Washington state.Washington State law began requiring exit testing for high school students in 2008. In 2010, SB 6696 authorized the Superintendent of Public Instruction to adopt Common Core State Standards, and it became law. Five years later, students began testing against those standards by taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) exams. English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) and Math replaced the former End of Course (EOC) exams in those subjects. But the new, more rigorous standards came at a price: lower proficiency rates. In 2015 (the first year the SBA tests were administered), of the students who took the exam, only 51.6% met proficiency levels in ELA and 29.0% in Math. The threshold for graduation initially set at a level below “proficient” expected for 11th-grade material has since been lowered to a level deemed below “proficient” for 10th-grade material.sbac.bmpLast June, HB 2224 became law, delaying the Biology EOC exam, even before it began. This was a compromise for those who preferred HB 1046, which delinks ESSA-mandated high school testing from graduation. The new Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), Chris Reykdal, supports delinking and discontinuing use of standardized assessments as a filter on who can and cannot graduate. Randy Dorn (SPI 2009-2017), started out in support of exit testing, but had changed his mind by 2014. Last spring, the State Board of Education (SBE) testified against HB 1046. The SBE revealed its official turnaround policy on delinking assessments from graduation requirements (with reservations) at a meeting earlier this month. HB 1046, with the delink-friendly Democrats’ return to the state government trifecta status it held when Common Core was adopted, was reintroduced in the House this month, and has the best chance of now becoming law, which would save taxpayers about 9 million dollars a year.

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Several members of the Oak Harbor Public Schools (OHPS) staff testified in favor of HB 1046 at a Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee meeting March 20, 2017 (see 1:20:15), including Dr. Lance Gibbon, OHPS Superintendent and Anna Chargualaf, Counselor for the Class of 2018, who shared the story of OHHS junior Naomi’s experience of trying to meet the ELA requirement. At that time, she had a 3.0 cumulative GPA and was earning an A in Human Body: an Internship at SVC through the Running Start program because she hoped to become a nurse. She was involved in track and swim team and worked as a lifeguard. She had failed the ELA twice and planned to take it again as well as the ACT (a Graduation Alternative). Because she hadn’t yet met the ELA requirement for graduation, she had to enroll in the Collection of Evidence class in the fall of her senior year. According to Dr. Gibbon (January 2018 via email), Naomi took the ACT twice (in April and June of 2017) but missed the required ELA cutoff by one point both times. She finally met the ELA standard by achieving the required score on the Reading/Writing section of the SAT in October of 2017. She was accepted into WSU and CWU.


Washington State students are the only ones in the country forced to meet Common Core requirements on Smarter Balanced Assessments for graduation and one of only thirteen that link federally-mandated test performance to high school graduation. State leaders’ actions show the arbitrary nature of these requirements. Meeting these requirements does not lead to improved academic and/or employment outcomes for graduates. It’s time to end exit testing requirements for high school students in Washington state.

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