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Most WASL scores up; concerns remain
Seattle Times staff reporter
This year's scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) showed strong gains in nearly every grade and subject, enough to boost spirits of the exam's supporters, but short of easing concern about what will happen in 2008, when the test becomes a graduation requirement.
Reading scores rose the most, after stagnating for a few years. Fourth-graders' scores rose to nearly 80 percent, and seventh-graders made the greatest gains, to 69 percent, up from about 61 percent last year.
Math scores went up in all three grades, too, especially in seventh grade, where 50.5 percent passed, compared with 46 percent in 2004.
The only declines were in 10th-grade writing and eighth-grade science.
Yet only about half of the students passed math in grades seven and 10, and only 42 percent of 10th-graders passed the reading, writing and math sections of the WASL. This means that unless the passage rate increases dramatically on next spring's test, tens of thousands of students who are sophomores this fall won't be on track to graduate. Starting with the class of 2008, students must pass those three subjects sometime before they graduate in order to earn a diploma.
That graduation requirement is so much on everyone's minds that at yesterday's news conference, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson reminded those present that there are just 1,014 more days between now and graduation for those students.
"We can't afford to let these kids down, to let ourselves down," Bergeson said.
Sample questions from previous WASL exams: www.k12.wa.us/assessment/WASL/testquestions.aspx
Scores from other districts:
WASL proponents include:
The Partnership for Learning,
WASL opponents include:
Mothers Against WASL,
Some highlights of the scores in Seattle-area schools and districts:
• Years of intense teacher training seemed to be paying off in Seattle, the state's largest district. For the first time, it recorded gains in reading across all grade levels and all ethnic groups. The district's performance in math, writing and science improved slightly in some grades but didn't outperform the state average in most cases. And only 35 percent of 10th-graders passed reading, writing and math, well below the state average.
• On the Eastside, all school districts had scores well above the state average, but some districts said they weren't nearly enough to guarantee all their students meet the graduation requirement, come 2008.
In the Issaquah School District, about 65 percent of 10th-graders passed all three subjects, an increase from about 62 percent last year.
Sophomores at Best High School in Kirkland went from 12 to 29 percent passing reading, writing and math, the second-largest increase among 10th-graders in the Seattle area. Principal Gayle Cudworth said her teachers "worked damn hard" to give 175 students personal attention and an integrated curriculum.
• In Snohomish County, the three largest districts — Edmonds, Everett and Mukilteo — posted 10th-grade reading scores above the state average.
Everett School District attributed its reading gains in all grades to the placement of literacy specialists in each school and coordinated efforts to raise achievement. At Cascade High School, reading scores climbed 30 percentage points over the past three years. But just 50 percent of Cascade 10th-graders met standards in math. The school is adding classes for struggling students and more teachers for advanced and remedial courses.
• Statewide, the gap in achievement among black, Latino and Native American students and their white and Asian counterparts generally narrowed in reading and math, except in fourth-grade math.
Overall, middle schools show the strongest gain in scores. Math continues to be a tough subject, and Bergeson said that's partly because too many people believe that not all students should have to study it. She said she found it troubling that students didn't do better, and said 50 percent of last year's 10th-graders couldn't solve a problem because they couldn't calculate volume.
See your child's WASL
To ask to view your child's WASL, e-mail OSPI at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the State Testing Coordinator at OSPI, P.O. Box 47200, Olympia, WA 98504-7200.
Science, the newest WASL subject, had the lowest scores.
This is the eighth year of the WASL, developed as part of the 1993 Education Reform Bill, which mandated new learning standards, a new state test and new accountability for students and schools.
Often, the schools that score the highest and the lowest are predictable, because test scores are highly correlated with students' family incomes. Still, many formerly low-scoring schools are breaking that old pattern and making great gains.
And despite all the angst over the WASL, Washington students do well on other exams. They have consistently scored above the national average on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), for example. And this year, college-bound students scored higher than ever before on the SAT.
None of the passing bars changed this year, except for 10th-grade reading. Without that change, the passing rate would have been 69 percent, rather than 72 percent.
When the WASL started in 1997, the idea that the test would become a graduation requirement seemed a long way away. Now, however, it's around the corner.
So far, no one has blinked, even though the passage rate, unless it increases dramatically, would mean upward of 50,000 students may not receive diplomas come 2008.
But the pressure — and the controversy — is heating up.
"It's scary, it's just really scary," said Bonnie Kayla, a regional representative for the state PTA and parent of an Everett sophomore who has high grades but didn't do well on the seventh-grade WASL.
"God knows I don't want my kid graduating without what he needs," she said, "but I just hate it's all on one test."
When the state Legislature opens its next session in January, however, the state PTA may be among groups asking lawmakers to remove the WASL as a graduation requirement, or perhaps delay it. Its members will vote in October whether to do so.
Lawmakers definitely will hear from the state's largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, which is happy that WASL scores are going up but objects to using them to judge who's worthy of a high-school diploma.
"We remain strongly opposed to the use of any single test as a graduation requirement," said Charles Hasse, the union's president. "There are too many false positives, and too many false negatives."
Bergeson, however, took a lot of heart in this year's scores, and results from the 11th-graders who took the 10th-grade WASL for the second time this year. Although they don't have to pass the exam to graduate, their WASL scores go on their diplomas. So 5,673 decided to take it again this spring to try to earn better marks.
Of those who hadn't earned a passing score on the reading test the first time, 58 percent passed on the second, Bergeson said. And 37 percent who had failed the math test passed it this time around.
Bergeson says she's less inclined than ever to delay the graduation requirement. "This year, as I've learned about competition around the world, the skills are even more important to me today than a year ago," she said.
Without the graduation requirement, she doubted scores would be rising. "The growth we're seeing is because the WASL is linked to graduation," she said.
Still, schools need more money and assistance to help students improve, she said, and if legislators don't provide it, she'll lobby the public to pressure them.
She wants all 10th-graders who fail the WASL next spring to have summer-school programs available to help them catch up. And she says her office will have alternative assessment in place by fall 2006, available for students who fail one or more subjects twice and want to show their skills in ways other than a paper-and-pencil test.
Others agree that it's not time to back off.
"B.B. King said, 'Never make your move too soon,' " said James Kelly, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. "We're seeing progress," he said. "We just need to accelerate it."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or email@example.com.
Seattle Times staff reporters Ashley Bach, Sanjay Bhatt and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company