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Monday, August 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Back to school + WASL = anxiety test

By Cara Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
First-grade teacher Jason Brown is frustrated by shrinking education budgets and growing class size.
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Jason Brown did everything a good teacher should do.

He browsed through bookstores. He stockpiled snacks. He got his first-grade classroom all dressed up and ready.

But there was something missing from his back-to-school routine this year: excitement.

Somewhere along the way — among high-stakes testing, shrinking budgets and increasing class size — he lost it.

"I don't even want to start the school year," said Brown, 29, who saw the number of students in his Federal Way district classroom spike from 17 to 28 last year. "We're already getting e-mails about how test scores have got to come up."

As schools open their doors this week and next, educators face mounting pressures from state and federal mandates that set higher goals for student achievement. Some feel energized, pointing to high test scores as proof that years of hard work are paying off. Others are anxious about the future, struggling to find ways to raise scores, worried their students won't graduate or that the federal government will label their school a failure.

School begins


First day for area districts

Monday: Skykomish, Lake Washington

Tuesday: Lakewood (Snohomish County), Orting

Wednesday: Carbonado, Fife, Franklin Pierce, Enumclaw, Mukilteo, Northshore, Renton, Stanwood-Camano, Vashon, White River

Thursday: Bethel, Edmonds, Kent, Peninsula, Steilacoom, Tacoma

Sept. 7: Auburn, Bainbridge, Bellevue, Darrington, Dieringer, Eatonville, Federal Way, Index, Marysville, Mercer Island, Riverview, Tahoma, Tukwila, University Place

Sept. 8: Arlington, Clover Park, Everett, Granite Falls, Highline, Issaquah, Lake Stevens, Monroe, Puyallup, Seattle, Shoreline, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Sultan

Sources: Puget Sound Educational Service District; Northwest Educational Service District 189

As education reform kicks into high gear this fall, test scores have taken on more significance than ever.

Under the state's new graduation requirements, this class of freshmen must pass the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to receive a diploma. Last year's results showed only about 35 percent of sophomores met that goal.

Under the federal law, No Child Left Behind, schools struggling with test scores last year must show improvement this year or face sanctions. Washington lobbied successfully this summer to get more flexibility on that rule. More than 430 schools in the state failed to meet the law's definition of "adequate yearly progress" last year.

Fragile times

"Just trying to manage increased pressure without increased funding is very tough," said Gary Kipp, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals. "Helping principals on the emotional end is something that is a paramount issue right now."

For the moment, Paul Luczak, principal at Juanita Elementary School in Kirkland, is feeling lucky. The last round of WASL scores put his school first among 13 across the state with similar demographics.

The new crop of WASL scores will be released Wednesday, but Luczak said the early data show his school will perform even better this year.

"It's nice to be on top but it's kind of an embarrassment of riches," said Luczak. "You feel badly for people who work their tails off and didn't get the scores."

Under the federal law, districts must intervene in schools that don't make progress on test scores for two years or more. The sanctions range from allowing students to transfer to other schools to the most severe option: closing the school and reassigning students. That possibility only enters the picture after a school has failed to improve its test scores significantly for six years in a row.

"There's some very scary language in the law," said Mary Alice Heuschel, deputy superintendent at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). "There's an understanding of the fear out there and how it escalates."

"Help, not a hammer"

But OSPI is there to provide "help, not a hammer," said Heuschel; the agency understands it can take years to bring up test scores, even when so many supports are being put into place.

In that spirit, the agency successfully lobbied the federal government for more flexibility on the No Child Left Behind rules this summer. Schools in the state will no longer have to worry about reaching constantly escalating performance goals. Instead, they will have to consistently reach the same targets three years in a row before making the leap to the next rung.

To win that flexibility, state officials argued that Washington's standardized test, the WASL, is among the toughest to pass in the nation. The state recognizes that fact in its own graduation requirements, allowing students four opportunities to retake the 10th-grade WASL.

Some educators are dismissive of the new mandates, convinced the rules will change even further in the future. In Bellevue, Superintendent Mike Riley said he would rather focus on preparing all students for college than on preparing them for the state's test. If Bellevue can prepare kids for college, he said, high test scores will follow soon enough.

"I'm not going to give anyone an ulcer over this," said Riley.

In the past few years, OSPI has helped schools in what it calls a focused assistance program, listed successful strategies on its Web site for raising test scores and invited teachers to help score the WASL, which has helped some better understand the nature of the test.

Heuschel said OSPI reached about 5,000 teachers this summer in a series of institutes. But she noted many educators are unaware of the changes in the federal law and unclear on how best to raise student performance.

In the Edmonds School District, Andi Nofziger-Meadows said she is more anxious than ever going into this school year. The freshmen who walk into her math class at Mountlake Terrace High School next week will face the new graduation requirements.

If they do not pass the WASL, they could fail to graduate, and Nofziger-Meadows said she will feel responsible for that failure.

"I just feel this incredible pressure," said Nofziger-Meadows, 34, a math teacher the past 12 years. "These kids' graduation is dependent on me doing all sorts of incredible things."

Leah Mehl knows all about WASL anxiety. The English teacher experienced it a few years ago, before she took a close look at the test. She was one of a few teachers at Meridian Middle School in Kent to volunteer to score the test two years ago and supervise the scoring last year.

First-hand look

"I thought it was this really big, scary, unfair test," said Mehl, 35. "And then I looked at it and started laughing and said, 'This is really not that hard.' "

But Mehl said it still requires time and energy to raise scores among struggling students. Last year, faced with a group of troubled students, Mehl created new lesson plans using everything from rap music to novels about teenage crime.

She is confident those students will pass the reading and writing WASLs in high school. But the year took a toll. Each week of the winter semester, she spent at least 10 extra hours researching and creating new lesson plans.

"I was scrambling," said Mehl. "A lot of teachers don't have the time or the energy."

Money is also a big issue. In lean budget times, schools are losing everything from after-school programs to classroom aides. And the Legislature has scaled back funding of a voter-approved class-size initiative, leaving some teachers with more students even as they struggle to meet the new standards.

In the Meredith Hill Elementary classroom where Brown teaches students to read, he can only spend about 10 minutes individually with each child. A couple of years ago, he had as much as 25 minutes with each student. Then his class size nearly doubled.

A group of superintendents last winter declared a funding crisis, demanding the Legislature meet its constitutional obligation to pay for basic education, which includes everything from transportation to special education.

From classroom to court

Frustrated by the lack of movement, several school districts have decided to pursue a lawsuit against the state, challenging the funding formula by demanding more money for special education, in particular. The districts are Issaquah, Federal Way, Northshore, Lake Washington, Spokane, Bellingham and Burlington-Edison.

Issaquah officials said they spent about $2.8 million from voter-approved levies on special education last year, money they could have spent on remedial-reading classes or after-school programs. The levy money is intended for enrichment programs.

But for all the anger and frustration over funding, something surprising has surfaced in Issaquah.

Kathy Linderman, president of the Issaquah Education Association, described it as a sense of solidarity. Two years after a bitter teachers strike, teachers and district officials are pulling together over the issue of funding.

"I'm seeing a lot of places where collaboration is coming to the front, and that's a good thing," said Linderman. "It's kind of everybody banding together to slay the dragon."

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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