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Saturday, November 01, 2003 - Page updated at 01:15 A.M.

Boycott of WASL test threatened by parents

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Parents of some of Seattle's smartest public-school kids are threatening to boycott the state's most important test if the School Board doesn't include their students in an application for state funds for gifted programs.

Charlie Mas, spokesman for a group of parents with students in Spectrum, one of the Seattle Public Schools' programs for high-achieving students, said the protest scheme was hatched because the district's proposed application for a state Highly Capable grant for the 2003-2004 school year excludes the Spectrum students. Mas fears the district is trying to close down the program.

But district officials say the state grant has never included Spectrum students and that they have no intention of dismantling Spectrum. On the contrary, they say they will expand it to more schools next year.

The School Board will review the application Wednesday and could vote Nov. 19 on whether to approve it.

If Spectrum students were to skip the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) next spring, they "could reduce Seattle School District's WASL pass rate by about 10 percent, virtually guaranteeing that the district will not make the (Adequate) Yearly Progress required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and making the district vulnerable to sanctions," Mas wrote in a news release.

"Why should the district benefit from our children's test scores if they're not going to support them?" asked Gordon Wang, another leader of the group.

But the district does support Spectrum students, officials say.

The grant from the state is worth $300,000 but, historically, the district has included only its Accelerated Progress Program (APP) — whose students are the district's top achievers — in its application for the funding. Students in APP are able to work at least two grade levels above their peers in reading and math. Spectrum students must master their grade-level standards and be able to work up to one grade level above their peers in reading and math.

As with many programs in the Seattle district, the Spectrum budget was cut this year. Some parents fear that further cuts expected next year might cost Spectrum most or all of its funding.

The grant could provide a new, stable source of funding for Spectrum, Mas said. If the district included Spectrum in the application, Wang said, that would go a long way toward easing fears the program could be lost.

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District officials say there are no plans to end Spectrum. Michelle Corker-Curry, who oversees the district's advanced-learner programs, said the district is committed to having Spectrum programs next year in each of the district's geographic "clusters" of schools, including the Queen Anne-Magnolia, West Seattle South and Southeast areas, where there are none now. She couldn't comment on the grant application, saying it is still being discussed.

Corker-Curry shook her head when told of the plan to boycott the WASL.

"I don't know how it helps their child in the long run and what message it sends to them," said Corker-Curry, who has a child in APP. She said telling students it is OK to skip the test could send an inconsistent message: Starting in 2008, high-school students will have to pass the test to graduate.

This year there are 1,374 students in Spectrum and about 1,144 elementary and middle-school students in APP, according to Colleen Shea Stump, the district's program manager for special education and advanced learning.

Spectrum is offered at Broadview-Thomson, Lafayette, Leschi, John Muir, View Ridge, Wedgwood and Whittier elementary schools. APP is offered at Lowell Elementary. Washington Middle School has both APP and Spectrum programs. Spectrum is also available at Eckstein, McClure and Whitman middle schools.

Grants from the state's Highly Capable Student Program support school districts' efforts to identify their most-capable learners and offer them an advanced curriculum. The money also goes toward teacher training, as well instructional and curricular support. Applications must state the number of students to be served by grade level, and the money can be spent only on those students.

In Seattle, the grant pays for most of the Advanced Learning staff, but most of its time is then restricted to supporting the needs of APP students, Mas says. District officials caution that doesn't mean that Spectrum doesn't get similar support — the funding simply comes from a different source.

But Mas believes that if the Spectrum students were on the grant application, the Advanced Learning department could allocate more time to them. "What we're asking for won't cost the district a dime," he said in an interview.

A WASL boycott wouldn't hurt Spectrum students, Mas said, because they "don't benefit from taking the test. The teachers don't, either. Advanced Learning students are taught to different standards than the ones measured by the WASL."

In grades four, seven and 10, WASL results determine whether students meet reading and math scores required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Test-score targets rise each year and are used to determine if schools and school districts are making "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.

This year the Seattle School District, like all others in Washington with more than 4,200 students, didn't make AYP in some areas, including among special-education students and students learning English. If the district falls short again next year, the state must offer help and can order changes, including new curriculum or staff.

Individual schools that fail to make AYP face consequences only if they receive federal dollars under the Title I program, which provides money to support students from low-income families. John Muir is Seattle's only Title I school with a Spectrum program. Muir students will not be asked to join the WASL boycott, Mas said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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