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Exit exams for high school graduation

Release Date: 

January 21, 2015

Dear stakeholders:

At its meeting last week, the State Board of Education adopted a position statement on the subject of requiring exit exams for high school graduation. The statement and the supporting materials have been posted to the SBE website. This was the third consecutive meeting in which the Board engaged in deep discussion on this issue, which has attracted considerable interest from stakeholders across the state. My purpose is to give you some highlights of that discussion, and how it shapes the Board’s work going forward.

The final adopted statement reaffirms the Board’s previous position – exit exams should play a part in how the state defines a meaningful high school diploma. Members emphasized, however, that we need to continue to develop alternative pathways for students who don’t test well and need other methods to demonstrate their acquisition of the Washington Learning Standards. The Board committed to continuing to monitor and study the effects of these requirements over time.

The Board discussed exit exams not as a single high-stakes test of readiness for life beyond high school, but rather as part of a series of opportunities for students to demonstrate proficiency on state standards and readiness for the next step in their educational journey. Requiring demonstration of proficiency sends an important message of urgency about the challenges before them. Our students will encounter similar challenges throughout young adulthood and during their transition to the workforce. These requirements, we believe, are the appropriate preparation.

As a system, we are in the midst of a transition period. The Board recognizes that the transition to an 11th grade SBAC exit exam for graduation under current law poses certain practical challenges for the collection of evidence process, and believes that additional alternative options may be necessary to offer students multiple pathways to a diploma. Several options were discussed, all of which would require legislative changes.

Students who have earned college credit through a variety of dual credit programs, such as Running Start and College in the High School, could be considered to have already demonstrated their readiness for college-level work, and thus to have satisfied an alternative pathway. 12th grade transition courses – courses geared to prepare students for entry into credit-bearing coursework in post-secondary institutions – could be similarly recognized as an alternative pathway. The Board also expressed preliminary interest in other options, including completion of Career and Technical Education programs of study or industry certifications, but seeks additional time to understand the extent of equivalency to Washington Learning Standards. Again, implementation of any of these promising changes would require legislative action.

The Board reiterated its position on ending the End-of-Course biology exam as a graduation requirement. On this point the Board was unanimous – focusing Washington students on biology at the expense of a broader exposure to STEM curriculum works against efforts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards. While the Board supports exit exams, they have to be thoughtful. The biology EOC stems from a time when the Legislature contemplated multiple end-of-course exams to assess a variety of scientific subjects and content, but never quite got there. We shouldn’t continue the exam as a graduation requirement only because we have nothing linked to the Next Generation standards to replace it. Accordingly, we have recommended to the Legislature its immediate elimination as a graduation requirement; however, making this change requires legislation.

Finally, the Board adopted Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium-recommended threshold scores for use in Washington State. These are the minimum scale scores that define the ‘career and college-readiness’ achievement level on the new assessments. These are the levels of achievement we want for all students. During the transition, however, these scores will not be a requirement for graduation. The Board recognizes the need for a transition period, as we acclimate to these new, higher, expectations. Accordingly, a second threshold score will be set for the diploma exit requirements in the interim, likely in August of this year. The Board’s intent is to eventually unify the two standards as we work to fully implement the effort of career and college readiness for all students in this state. This helpful video provides a more detailed explanation.

The Board appreciates hearing from stakeholders across the state on these issues. All of your notes are shared with Board members. Please be in touch at

The central theme of our work as a Board is the challenge of simultaneously raising standards for all students, while also increasing the number of students meeting those standards.  Not only do we believe this is something we can do, but something we must do. We regard you all as partners in this important work.

On behalf of the Board,

Ben Rarick

Media Contact: 

Alissa Muller, SBE Communications Manager, (360) 725-6501