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Originally published Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Class of '08 about to hit WASL wall

Three school days before this year's Washington Assessment of Student Learning, administrator Jim Jeffreys walks briskly up and down the...

Seattle Times education reporter

State graduation requirements

A minimum of 19 credits, including English, math, science, social studies, health and physical education, the arts and electives. Individual school districts often require more.

A Culminating Project: This portfolio, collected through research, internships and other studies, allows students to pursue an area of interest and show how what they've learned connects to the world beyond school.

WASL: Pass the reading and writing sections of the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or an approved alternative.

Math WASL: Pass the math section of the 10th-grade WASL, or earn one credit in math this year.

Plan: A "high school and beyond" plan must be completed.

Source: state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Alternatives to the WASL

High-school students who fail any or all sections of the WASL can demonstrate their proficiency in a subject in the following ways:

A collection of evidence: Students compile classroom work samples under supervision of a teacher.

Other tests: Submit high-enough scores on college-admissions tests or certain Advanced Placement exams.

Grade comparison: A student's grades in math and/or English courses are compared with the grades of students who took the same courses AND passed the WASL. This option is available to students in their senior year who have a GPA of at least 3.2.

Special education: These students also have additional options.

Source: Partnership for Learning and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Three school days before this year's Washington Assessment of Student Learning, administrator Jim Jeffreys walks briskly up and down the stairs at Seattle's Franklin High to touch base with seniors who still need to pass at least part of the test to graduate in June.

He persuades one to start showing up for math class and lets another know he'll be watching to make sure she makes up some work.

To a third, who slips in late to a class where he's giving a WASL pep talk, he quickly says as he leaves: "Reading, writing, next week. Be there."

She nods.

This week is it: the last chance for students in the class of 2008 to take the reading and writing sections of the 10th-grade WASL before graduation.

The class of 2008 is the first class required to pass any part of the WASL. To earn their diplomas, they must pass the reading and writing parts of the exam, or demonstrate they have the same skills on a number of alternatives such as the SAT college-entrance exam, or grades that match those of classmates who've passed the WASL.

They no longer have to pass the math section, but if they don't, they must instead earn a full credit of math this year.

The number of students who still need to pass the WASL's reading and/or writing sections is 12,500 to 18,000, depending on how you count.

Last month, about 2,000 of them submitted a collection of assignments that, if judged sufficient, also can substitute for the WASL.

But those students must take the WASL one last time, too.

This week, it's the reading and writing sections. The last crack at math will come in April.

Then they'll wait — at least until late April, when scores on the collections of assignments (called "collections of evidence") are promised. Or until May 27, when the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) plans to let seniors know whether they've passed this spring's WASL.

The timing will be tight, with just weeks, if not days, before some schools' graduation ceremonies.

The number of students still sweating it out is much smaller than feared a few years ago. That was when students needed to pass WASL math as well as reading and writing — and about half the class was failing that subject.

But the number's also higher than has often been reported.

Last year, OSPI said 83 percent of the class passed reading and writing, but that counted only students who had enough credits to be on track to graduate this June. That left about 12,500 to go.

Last week, OSPI finished its promised analysis of all the students in the class, including those whose districts don't classify them as seniors.

When all those students are counted, about 78 percent of the class has passed the WASL's reading and writing sections, leaving about 18,000 to go.

When dropouts are counted, too, the passage rates drop even further.

District by district, however, the numbers of students who still need to pass reading and writing has sometimes dwindled to a few dozen or so.

Many districts report that the bigger challenge remains math, as they scramble to provide enough math classes for seniors who need to pass them.

• In Lake Stevens, for example, just 18 seniors need to pass the reading WASL, and nine in writing. Another 134 need to pass the math test, or their math classes.

• The Marysville School District reports that the reading and/or writing WASL could be a graduation barrier for just 34 of 853 seniors.

• In Edmonds, there are 38 students who have enough credits to graduate and still need to pass the reading WASL. Of those, about half will take the WASL for the first time this week, largely because they're new to the state or the country. In writing, it's 36 students, and only 14 who have taken the WASL writing before.

• In Kent, about 13 percent of seniors need to pass reading and/or writing, and in Northshore, it's 6 percent. In Seattle, it's 14 percent, according to OSPI.

Some stress that many more students will fail to graduate due to lack of credits than will fall short because of the WASL.

To others, however, the WASL failure rates are still too high, especially for certain categories of students, including students who are learning English.

In Tukwila, for example, all but five of the seniors who have not yet passed the reading WASL are new to the country, said Zena Ingles, executive director of learning and teaching. In Bellevue, it's 15 of the roughly 30.

"Some of these students can read and write and do math very well in another language," Ingles said. "But at this point, it doesn't matter."

There's also new evidence — too preliminary to be reliable — that the dropout rate for the class of 2008 may be higher than that of the class of 2007, the last class that did not have to pass the WASL to graduate. In a recent analysis, OSPI staff found that the dropout rate for the class of 2008 was 8.9 percent from their 10th-grade year to the present. The comparable figure for the class of 2007 was 7.4 percent.

But Joe Willhoft, assistant superintendent of assessment and research, said he doesn't have a lot of confidence in that number. OSPI expects to have a firmer figure later this year.

Still, the number is a concern, since one fear about graduation tests in Washington state and elsewhere is that they'll lead more students to drop out.

Back at Franklin High, Jeffreys stops by a class of 10th-graders to give them a WASL pep talk, since they will take the exam this week, too.

He then hurries to talk with one more senior before that period ends.

He reminds her that the WASL starts Monday. She doesn't have enough credits to graduate, she tells him, so there's no point.

He urges her to come anyway.

"You'll need to pass the WASL to graduate sometime," he says, urging her to show up at 8 a.m. on Monday.

"OK," she says.

He asks if she means it.

"Yes, I'll be here," she says.

Seattle Times staff reporters Christina Siderius and Lynn Thompson contributed to this story.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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