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Originally published Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 2:25 PM

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Wash. schools boss aims to cut 2 graduation exams

Washington state is tops in the nation for something many students, educators and parents would like to change - the number of tests required to earn a high school diploma.

Associated Press

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SEATTLE —

Washington state is tops in the nation for something many students, educators and parents would like to change - the number of tests required to earn a high school diploma.

Starting with this year's sophomores, Washington will be the only state to require students to pass five different tests to graduate. Nine states have four graduation exams. Four states have three such tests. Ten states have one or two. In 26 states, high school students don't have to pass any exams to graduate.

Every state has to test its students in reading and math, but they get to decide whether to use those tests as a graduation requirement and whether to add other subjects like writing and science to the mix, as Washington has.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn would like to see Washington save money and time by dropping down to three graduation exams and by transferring most grading of a test alternative known as the "collection of evidence" to local school districts.

House Bill 1450, which would make these changes, is scheduled to be heard Friday in the House Education Committee. Dorn said the bottom line is: Are students learning more in Washington because they have to take high school exit exams?

"I can't see a difference," he said earlier this week.

That's exactly what the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, has been saying for years. There's too much emphasis on testing and the tests aren't benefiting children, WEA President Mary Lindquist has said repeatedly.

"We need to have high standards for our kids, and we want them to be achieving at a high level. Testing and testing and more testing is not going to get us to that goal," Lindquist said Thursday.

It's time to take a closer look at how much the state is spending on testing and then analyze the impact, Lindquist said. She has heard each test costs as much as $100 million to administer. Dorn, in his analysis, cites a potential yearly savings in the state budget of $20 million.

To earn a diploma in Washington, students also need to earn a certain array of credits, complete a senior project and compose a plan for what they plan to do after high school.

In addition to the five Washington graduation tests - reading, writing, algebra, geometry and biology - this year's 10th graders are expected to pass, two new high school tests are about to be added to that list.

The state recently decided to embrace new national academic standards and there will soon be two 11th-grade tests - not graduation requirements - to test their knowledge in language arts and math.

Dorn's proposal would eventually replace the reading and writing test with a combined exam that he thinks could be the national test on English language arts. He would eliminate the geometry test as a graduation requirement, but keep algebra and biology.

Lindquist has an alternative proposal.

"Our standards are in transition. Our tests are based on old standards. Maybe it's time to call a moratorium on high-stakes testing," she said, adding that she would use the money the state saves to decrease class sizes in the lower grades.

At its last meeting, the State Board of Education endorsed Dorn's plan to decrease the number of state graduation tests and also wants to keep thinking about how Washington should use the new national tests, said Executive Director Ben Rarick.

"They also reaffirmed that tests should continue to be part of the graduation requirements," Rarick added.

Confused parents may be interested in another proposal, Senate Bill 5366, which would demand school districts and state education officials do a better job of communicating about school testing.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the idea for that proposal came from parents and students who say there are so many tests they don't know the purpose of them. They also are confused about graduation requirements, she said.

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