With high school graduation ceremonies just three months away, nearly 15,000 Washington high school seniors have yet to pass the newest addition to the state's graduation requirements.
For the first time ever, public high school students in Washington state need to pass an end-of-course exam in either algebra or geometry in order to graduate. It’s a requirement that’s been delayed for years because of worries that not enough kids could pass the test.
As the deadline approaches, those worries haven’t gone away.
Thirteen years ago, the state Board of Education voted to toughen high school graduation requirements. Beginning with the graduating class of 2008, students would have to pass reading, writing and math exit exams in order to graduate. There was just one problem: As the deadline loomed, only half of the graduating class was passing the math test. State lawmakers delayed the math requirement for five years – to 2013.
Despite the years of warning, a lot of seniors still haven’t made the grade.
Teacher Yana Aronova’s remedial algebra class at Highline High School in Burien is aimed at one thing: making sure these seniors meet the new math standard. In the Highline School District, more than a quarter of this year’s seniors have not passed the math requirement. For most of those students, math is the one remaining hurdle to graduation. "It’s been a concern that’s kind of looming over my head since September and also over these kids, as well," says Aronova.
Not just these kids.
According to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, about one-fifth of all Washington high school seniors have yet to pass the math standard.
Kids should have passed either the algebra or the geometry test by the end of 10th grade. Make-up tests are given twice a year. But if students haven’t passed by 12th grade, their best chance is often to complete a Collection of Evidence: a set of math problems the state provides as an alternative to the math test.
That’s what Highline High senior Imoniee Johnson is working on now. "So far it’s going good, but right now I’m having a more difficult time remembering my past math experiences," Imoniee said. It’s been two years since she took algebra.
For most of the seniors Aronova is working with, math has been a struggle for years. So getting them up to speed requires not just refreshers, but building math skills they should have learned in middle school. To get there, Highline is offering seniors extra classes during and after school to try to keep the new graduation requirements from lowering the graduation rate.
"The fear, or the worry, and the heartache of that possibility is definitely there for everyone, I think," Aronova said. "For me and the students and the administration, because we all really want them to pass, and we’re hoping that this extra opportunity does what it’s supposed to do."
Despite the multiple options for passing the math requirement, Jim Sporleder says it’s not fair to keep kids from graduating just because they struggle with algebra and geometry. Sporleder is principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, and he objects to the new math standard. "I’ve asked for research that shows failing algebra is a predictor for failing life, and obviously there is no research that supports that," Sporleder said.
Most students who haven’t met the math standard are low-income, and Sporleder points to research that suggests that kids’ brains develop differently when they grow up in stressful environments. For those children, math is one of the subjects that can be especially tricky.
"These kids have run the race and they’ve gone the distance. To right before they hit the ribbon, to pluck their high school diploma out their hands – and people don’t like it when I use the word ‘unworthy,’ but to me that’s the message that we’re sending: ‘You are unworthy,'" Sporleder said.
It’s not clear how many students will be kept from graduating because of the new math standards. The state is due to release the results of the latest exams and math problem sets soon.
Meanwhile, the graduation requirements will only be getting harder. Two years from now, seniors are supposed to pass a second math test – and a science test – in order to get their diplomas.