Time for school graduation waiver has passed
In Our View

Sooner, rather than later, public schools must stop using the fallout from COVID-19 as an excuse for all manner of shortcomings.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic that arrived in 2020 upended the educational process. Students throughout the country were temporarily thrust into remote learning; teachers had to reinvent instructional methods; and parents had to adjust daily routines while often worrying about the security of their own jobs.

As with any disruptive event, some people adjusted well while others struggled. Learning loss accrued during the height of the pandemic and has been well-documented, leaving many students of all ages struggling to reach grade level achievement in core subjects.

Yet, while we acknowledge the lingering social, health, economic and educational impacts of COVID — which still officially is in the pandemic stage — we also stress the need to move forward. This need is particularly evident in public schools throughout Washington. Yet last week, State Board of Education officials agreed to extend a waiver of certain graduation requirements for high school students in the Class of 2024.

The waiver was approved by the Legislature in 2021, allowing for the “unforeseen disruptions to coursework and assessments that are beyond the student’s control.” At the time, that was understandable, but that time has passed.

Therefore, it is disconcerting that the Association of Washington School Principals sought and obtained an extension of the waiver for this year. According to news outlet Washington State Standard, Associate Director Scott Friedman told the state board that there are three ongoing obstacles to completing graduation requirements: “credits, classes and mental health.”

Combined with the 2019 adoption of “graduation pathways,” Washington continues to reduce the demands on students — to the detriment of those students.

Graduation pathways allow for alternatives to the accruement of credentials — for example, demonstrating technical proficiency rather than passing a traditional test.

According to the state board, nearly 13 percent of students used a waiver to graduate in 2022, and 8 percent used a pathway waiver.

In a School Counselor Association survey of members from over 70 districts in the state, the Washington State Standard reports, 94 percent said they had students who would not graduate without the pathway requirement waiver.

Ideally, Washington public schools will reach a point where every student has the motivation and the skill to meet graduation requirements. But reducing demands on students should not be equated with successful education.

The same argument can be made regarding classroom grades.

A study released this year by Stanford University and Harvard University found that grade inflation is detrimental to students in Washington (and elsewhere). As The Seattle Times summarized: “New research shows educators are awarding higher grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past, a practice known as grade inflation. At the same time, test scores among many classes are flat or declining.”

Together, these issues reflect serious shortcomings in American education. And they require demanding standards from policymakers, administrators, teachers and — particularly — parents.

Students in the Class of 2024 have faced some unique challenges throughout their high school careers. But allowing those challenges to still be used as an excuse does a disservice to those students.