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Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:21 A.M.

Panel supports easing WASL target

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times staff reporter

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VANCOUVER, Wash. — This year's freshman class should have to pass only one or two subjects on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to earn a high-school diploma because the school system isn't ready to require more, a state commission voted yesterday.

The decision is preliminary, intended to give the public time to respond before the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission makes a final recommendation to the Legislature next month. But none of the eight commission members at yesterday's meeting favored requiring students to earn a score of "proficient" in each of three subjects — reading, writing and math — starting in 2008.

Instead, commissioners voted to allow students to reach the "proficient" level in one or two subjects in 2008, as long as they reach the "basic" level in the others.

The commissioners all said that didn't mean they are giving up on the goal that all students soon should be expected to reach the proficient level in all those subjects — attaining a score of 3 out of a possible 4 in each subject. A score of 2 out of 4 is considered "basic."

But they all said they felt state lawmakers haven't come through with enough resources to ensure that the state isn't setting students up to fail.

"Unless the funding is there, we can't get our students there," said Hummingbird St. Peter, a commission member and member of a diversity advisory council in the Spokane School District.

The Legislature voted in the spring to keep 2008 as the date when students would have to pass the reading, math and writing sections of the WASL to get a diploma. It was a key step in a decadelong effort to raise student achievement by setting learning standards and designing a statewide test to see if students reach them. Yet because so few students now pass all three of those subjects, many fear that, come 2008, tens of thousands will be denied a diploma.

Last year, for example, just 39 percent of 10th-graders earned a "proficient" score in the reading, writing and math sections of the test; among some ethnic groups, that figure was as low as 27 percent.

Those numbers weighed heavily yesterday on the minds of the members of the commission, a panel that includes a teacher, a principal, a retired principal, a superintendent, two businessmen and two community leaders. Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson also is a member.

They heard more yesterday from Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that studied the WASL and concluded it was reasonable to expect all students to pass it before graduating, and that the math section is easier than the graduation tests in six other states it had studied.

Still, the commissioners all clearly felt it wasn't yet time to expect that much — not because students couldn't do it, but because the schools don't have what they need to help them.
 
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The commissioners disagreed, however, on just how many subjects this year's freshmen should have to pass come 2008. Students first take the WASL in the 10th grade and will have four more tries to pass any subject they fail.

The eight members present at first split 5-3 on whether to require a "proficient" score in only one subject or two and a "basic" score in the other subjects.

Commission members who supported proficiency in two subjects included Chairman David Fisher and Bergeson, who both worried about the message that would be sent by requiring proficiency in only one subject. They worried about losing momentum and a sense of urgency. And they were optimistic that students and schools can do more than some might think.

Richard Esparza, a high-school principal in Granger, Yakima County, held up a list of his students, and said he's confident that he can get 80 percent or more to the proficient level in two subjects by 2008.

The commissioners who favored requiring proficiency in just one subject were more pessimistic about how fast the system can improve in the next few years, especially to help students who are already behind.

"I'll bet my house and my job" that there won't be enough support in place by then, said commission member James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

The commission members all agreed, however, to recommend that students attain proficiency in two of three subjects — reading, writing and math — in 2009, followed by three of four subjects in 2010 and 2011. The fourth subject is science, scheduled to become a graduation requirement in 2010. And in 2012, they would be expected to be proficient in all four subjects.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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