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Sunday, January 29, 2006 - Page updated at 11:55 AM

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WASL tests the state as well as students

Seattle Times staff reporter

Twenty sophomores sit in twos and threes, huddled over math problems. A few months ago, they were in drama class, or P.E. or other electives at Chief Sealth High. But when the West Seattle school offered a course to help them pass the exam they need to graduate, they signed up.

They switched because they're nervous about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), their parents are nervous, or both. After 13 years, more than $100 million in testing costs and lots of debate, Washington sophomores are 30 school days away from the biggest test of their lives.

They are the first class in this state to face a graduation test — something students in about half the states already face, or will face soon. Here, they will be expected to pass reading, writing and math on the WASL sometime in the next two years to earn their diploma. Or, if they fail twice, they can demonstrate their skill on some equally difficult but yet undefined alternative.

"How come they picked us?" laments Domonique Williams, one student in the Sealth class, echoing a sentiment that's heard frequently from sophomores these days.

Members of the Class of 2008 and their parents aren't the only ones with worries. More than a reflection on individual students, this year's results on the 10th-grade WASL are a test of what the state has — or hasn't — accomplished since the education-reform act was passed in 1993.

Did the schools do enough to prepare students? Did state lawmakers provide enough dollars to help schools do that? Is the WASL a good test of what students know? Does it set the bar too high — or too low? Is it fair to ask all students to pass it — even those just learning English, or those with disabilities?

All these questions and more continue to be debated in classrooms, in Olympia hearing rooms, among teachers and students.

Judging by last year's WASL results, none of the concerns will disappear soon.

Last spring, fewer than half of the state's 10th-graders passed the test's three key subjects. (The fourth — science — won't be a graduation requirement until 2010.) Even optimistic projections put the failure rate this spring at around 40 percent, meaning roughly 34,000 students would have to face taking the test at least a second time.

The statistics for some groups of students cause even more concern. For example:

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• More than three-quarters of the state's poorest students failed reading, writing or math on last year's 10th-grade exam. Thirty percent failed all three subjects.

• Half of the state's African-American and Hispanic students didn't even come close to passing the math section of the 2005 exam, scoring a one on a four-point scale.

• Sixty-one percent of students who are learning English — excluding those who have been in the country for less than a year — failed all three subjects last year. So did 60 percent of special-education students who weren't exempt from taking the test.

• Passage rates vary among school districts, but even the richest aren't close to 100 percent. In Mercer Island, for example, 20 percent of last year's sophomores failed at least one of the three main subjects.

Many hope the passing rates will rise significantly over the next year or two for a couple of reasons. First, 10th-graders now have a reason to take the test more seriously. Students will be able to retake the exam (or parts of it) up to four more times for free — and more if they pay for it.

Schools have started or plan to step up efforts to help students who fail. The Federal Way School District, for example, provided special classes and summer-school programs for all the students in the Class of 2008 who failed the math or reading parts of the WASL when they were in seventh grade.

District officials expect nearly three-quarters of their 10th-graders to pass the reading section of the test this spring, up from the 54 percent who passed in seventh grade. They project 62 percent will pass math, up from 39 percent. And they hope to raise those numbers even more in the dwindling number of school days before the reading and writing WASL begins in March. (The math and science sections will be given in April.)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson is marking the days, too, but she's counting the roughly 850 between now and when the Class of 2008 is supposed to graduate. In that time, she's confident schools can get students the help they need — starting with the $38 million to $40 million she's sure the Legislature will approve this session for extra summer help.

In the two WASL prep classes at Sealth, teachers gave a practice test shortly after the class began in mid-November. The results weren't surprising for students who sought extra assistance, but they weren't promising. Of 36 students, six scored high enough to indicate they could pass the math part of the exam. That news quieted the room.

"Dang," one student finally said.

Peter Russo, a student teacher helping with the class, told those who scored at Level 2 (levels 3 and 4 are passing) that they were on the dance floor, in the key, in the ballpark. To the Level 1 students, he was encouraging but direct: "You have a lot of work to do."

Value still debated

In theory, the WASL is supposed to ensure that no student graduates from high school without strong skills in reading, writing and math. Supporters, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, argue that requiring students to pass the exam will inject more meaning into a diploma they say has become pretty thin.

Critics, including the state PTA and the teachers union, counter that the WASL was not designed to evaluate individual students, and no single test should determine anything as important as graduation. They worry that putting such high stakes on the WASL will do more harm than good, including raising the dropout rate.

Some teachers and parents also say the WASL gets too much attention, crowding out subjects and skills it doesn't cover.

"I don't like all the focus to be on one test," says Tammy Jahrman, a math teacher at Meadowdale High in Lynnwood.

The stress level this year is clearly climbing.

"People talk about it all the time. It's such a big deal," says Zenash Kasa, a sophomore at Renton's Hazen High, who says her mother has hired a tutor to help her with math.

Though members of the Class of 2008 grew up with the WASL — they were preschoolers when the law passed, and have taken the fourth- and seventh-grade versions of the exam — there's been enough uncertainty that the graduation requirement hasn't always seemed real.

"I think the kids — and some of the teachers — thought it might not actually happen," said Ben Graeber, a language-arts teacher at Hazen.

Graeber recently asked students what questions they have about the test. They had so many he spent nearly a half-hour just writing them down.

The students wondered how hard it is, who grades it, why they have to pass it. They asked whether they had to pass science (not until 2010), and some mistakenly thought they had to write every answer in cursive.

"I was surprised at how scared they are," Graeber said.

Some teachers consciously work to ease the rising tension.

"If we panic, they panic," says David Vinson, who teaches language arts at Federal Way High School. "We have to say, 'You can do this.' Because I really think they can."

The WASL prep class at Sealth started earlier than originally planned. Greg Fritzberg, who teaches education at Seattle Pacific University, originally approached the school about offering it next fall, after students know how they scored on their first try at the test this spring. But in conversations with Sealth Principal John Boyd, they thought, why wait?

Fritzberg's views of using the WASL as a graduation requirement are mixed, primarily because he's not sure there has been enough support to help students be ready. But he feels a moral obligation to help this very first class prepare for the exam.

"No matter what you think about it," he says, "we shouldn't be missing days and hours to help kids who are facing it."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Cheryl Phillips contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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