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Originally published Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 4:11 PM

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Guest columnist

No more delays in Washington state's math and science requirements

Washington state schools chief Randy Dorn is doing the wrong thing by proposing to delay mathematics and science graduation requirements, writes guest columnist George D. Nelson. The former astronaut says the state should make helping kids achieve the current standards a top priority.

Special to The Times

STATE Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn's most recent proposal to delay mathematics and science graduation requirements would be a step in the wrong direction for Washington students. It also calls into question whether our state is serious about ensuring all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in career and life.

Growing up, I dreamed of being many things, including an astronaut. I was fortunate to attend schools that encouraged, challenged and prepared me for success. In 1978 I realized my childhood dream, eventually flying on three NASA space missions.

Washington's students deserve the same support to obtain the knowledge, skills and confidence to pursue their dreams. Regardless of the path a student chooses after high-school graduation, be it an astronaut or auto technician, mathematics and science literacy is critical for every student's future. These subjects give students the power to think clearly, solve problems and design innovative solutions.

Washington's current law calls on educators to help children meet the mathematics and science graduation requirements by 2013. Just a year ago, a similar proposal to delay the deadline was brought forward by the state superintendent. I disagreed then and disagree now.

We know that students struggle in the subjects of math and science. Rather than postponing deadlines we should increase our efforts to address this problem. Delaying these standards may make life easier for adults in the short term but puts our children and society at a disadvantage in the long run.

It is projected that by 2018, more than 67 percent of jobs in Washington will require a college degree or career credential. Many of those jobs will rely heavily on the skills obtained through math and science. We cannot continue to lower expectations and set our children up for failure.

Across the country, states are raising the bar for their students and realizing major results in student achievement. Massachusetts passed its graduation laws around the same time as Washington. It stuck to those standards and is now the highest-achieving state in the nation. Instead of raising the bar, our state is lowering it.

As the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers is shrinking in other states, Washington is one of fewer than 10 states where it is growing. Some view this as an expectation gap, where low-income kids and students of color are not held to the same standard. Continuing to delay high standards and graduation requirements reinforces this concept.

Our state has a track record of setting goals and deadlines to achieve them, but when it looks like we might not meet our goals we simply move the deadlines. This sends the message to many students that the system doesn't really care whether they succeed or not.

Student learning is cumulative and every year is important. Students who are taught poorly or not taught subjects like science in elementary school enter middle school or high school with insurmountable deficits.

The state needs a detailed plan for helping K-12 schools support effective teachers to educate all students in all subjects and a system to measure their progress. No more excuses.

When I retired from NASA, I chose to dedicate myself to improving the education system. It is time for us all, especially the state, to step up and take our responsibility to prepare the next generation seriously.

George "Pinky" Nelson is director of the Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Program and professor of physics and astronomy at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He was a NASA astronaut from 1978 to 1988. In 2008 he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

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