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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Education

Math camp a plus with WASL looming

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Anthony Esposo recognized that the two lines on the geometry problem were parallel, but he didn't know how to put his understanding into words.

For the 30 Mariner High School students who gave up part of spring break last week to prepare for the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, tapping into what they already know will be key to passing.

"They're looking for the piece that shows your thinking," teacher Scott Powers advised the students participating in the WASL math camp at Mariner. "It doesn't have to be long. Just show what assumptions you made."

For many students, passing the math section of the test looms as the biggest obstacle to high-school graduation.

Statewide, just 48 percent of 10th-graders met the WASL's math standards last spring. At Mariner, a Mukilteo-district school where half of the students come from low-income families and almost 40 percent are minorities, the figures are even more daunting.

Just 36 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of Hispanic and black students at Mariner understood enough math to pass last year. With this year's sophomores the first who must pass the WASL — or an approved alternative — to receive diplomas, the math-camp participants said they were happy to trade part of their vacations for help preparing for the test.

"Geometry is one of my weakest points," said Esposo, a ninth-grader who signed up to take the test a year early. "I'm good at algebra equations, but I'm not one of those kids who can see shapes."

High schools across Snohomish County have adopted a variety of strategies to help prepare students for the math portion of the WASL, which is being administered this week. Some have offered after-school study sessions. Others have assigned struggling students to a second math class, taken along with the first, to give them more time to learn concepts. Some high schools offer peer tutoring for struggling students.

Mariner administrators said that when they offered after-school study sessions, students and teachers were too tired for the classes to be effective, so administrators dropped the classes.

During midwinter break in February, the school experimented with a WASL prep class in reading and writing, and two dozen students participated. Student feedback was encouraging enough to prompt administrators to offer the math refresher during spring break.

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Some students were referred by teachers. Others signed up on their own after hearing about the course from peers. Their teachers said last week's turnout reflected the students most at risk of failing: more boys than girls, a high percentage of minority students and many students whose parents don't speak English.

"The kids who need to be here are here," said Tami Nesting, a Mariner teacher and administrator who oversaw the WASL math camp.

Grace Villanueva said she had trouble remembering the math she'd learned in previous years.

"I'd already forgotten algebra from last year," she said. "I came to review and gain confidence."

Bashair Alazadi, whose family is from Iraq, said she loves math but, like Esposo, has difficulty putting that understanding into words.

"I can't always explain what's in my head," she said.

She defended the WASL as a reasonable standard for graduation and said the level of math needed to pass is "basic," including an equation students reviewed last week that determines the coordinates of a line.

"This is stuff you should know," Alazadi said.

Some of the students were aware of the gaps in their knowledge. They pointed to the many teachers, approaches and concepts they had experienced over the years and said it was no wonder they hadn't mastered everything.

But there were also many moments at math camp when students suddenly said "Oh!"

"I'm brushing up on things I'd forgotten and finding new techniques to solve problems," said Angelica Draisey. "Every different teacher taught different things at different times."

The camp's teacher, Powers, said one purpose of the refresher course was to convince students of all they'd learned over the previous 10 years.

"We have to remind them to draw on their intelligence, their experience. They do know something, and sometimes that's enough," Powers said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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