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A Washington State Fight, a Nationwide Debate

Some readers may already be aware of a battle unfolding in Washington state over tough new graduation requirements in math, science, speaking, and writing. State schools Superintendent Randy Dorn has proposed delaying the implementation of the mandate, which has rankled Gov. Chris Gregoire and members of the state school board. But while the story carries a Washington state dateline, it reflects a fight that has played out with what seems like increasing frequency in state capitals around the country in recent years.

Dorn is arguing that the state's students simply aren't ready for the new requirements, that current course requirements don't match the test schedules, and that the mandates need to be phased in more slowly. Here's a sample of his argument, from an op-ed in the Spokesman-Review:

Our new math and science learning standards won't be tested until spring 2011 (math) and spring 2012 (science). That's when the class of 2013, the first to be required to pass all four state exams, is in their 10th and 11th grade years, respectively. Courts have consistently ruled that students must have ample opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge that are being assessed. I'm no lawyer, but assessing new standards when the class of 2013 is already two or three years into high school doesn't seem like ample time.

One intriguing feature of what Dorn is proposing is that he wants to create a two-tiered system in math—one for students who score "proficient" on state tests, the other for students scoring "basic." Students who score basic could still graduate with a regular diploma, if they complete a fourth year of high school math. "I encourage you to ask any educator what's harder," Dorn writes in the editorial, "to pass the state math exam or to earn a fourth math credit. That's not lowering standards."

Gregoire, and members of the state board, seem to be saying that enough is enough, and the state can't afford to put off stricter requirements if it wants to raise student performance and prepare them for the world after high school graduation. The governor also argues that Washington parents share her point of view. I'm not sure about that one. It's one thing to support the idea of higher standards in the abstract; it's another to think parents support having their sons or daughters denied a traditional diploma because they can't pass a test.

More broadly, the Washington debate carries echoes of the fight over tougher algebra requirements in California, and, for that matter, in Louisiana, as my colleague Erik Robelen reported recently. Some state officials demand higher standards, while those charged with administering those requirements, in this case Dorn, see big failure rates (a "train wreck," as the superintendent puts it) on the horizon.

If you've followed these debates in other states, here's your chance to offer your own policy solution. Would Dorn's proposal compromise state standards, or simply set them at a realistic level.

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