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Tuesday, January 24, 2006 - Page updated at 03:51 PM


A fifth of Seattle sophomores to become freshmen

Seattle Times staff reporter

An estimated 20 percent of Seattle high-school sophomores, part of the first class of students who must pass a state exam to graduate, won't have to take it this spring with their classmates after all.

In an effort to make sure students are ready for the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the Seattle School District no longer will consider students sophomores unless they've earned at least five credits as freshmen, district officials said yesterday.

Until now, students were sophomores in their second year of high school, regardless of how many credits they'd earned.

A handful of other school districts have similar policies, said Steve Wilson, Seattle's chief academic officer, including Kent, which switched gears in 1999.

The change likely will mean that Seattle's WASL scores will increase, at least initially, because roughly 700 of the least-prepared students won't be taking the test this spring. But officials said the intent is to help students realize early that they need to improve.

The goal, Wilson said, is to make sure students have successfully completed the courses they'll need to do well on the exam.

"It is inappropriate for us to force kids to take the WASL before they're ready for it," he said.

Wilson announced the change yesterday at a School Board retreat as part of a bigger discussion about all the measures the district is taking to make sure sophomores have a shot at passing the WASL. Later in the meeting, School Board members made clear they strongly oppose the WASL as a graduation requirement.

This year's 10th-graders are the first group that must pass the exam to earn a high-school diploma. In high school, students take the WASL for the first time as sophomores, and if they fail, can retake it up to four more times. (The exam is given in earlier grades as well, but without the same high stakes for students.)

If the past is a guide, a majority of students won't pass on their first try. Last spring, 42 percent of sophomores statewide earned the required scores in reading, writing and math — the three subjects that are part of the graduation requirement. In Seattle, it was 35 percent.

Seattle's decision is based in part on statistics that indicate students who are short of credits don't do well on the WASL. Last spring, for example, 32 percent of Seattle students with four to six credits passed the reading section of the test, but the passage rate jumped to 79 percent for those with 7.5 to nine credits.

Students who take a full load of six classes per semester and pass all their courses earn six credits each year. Seattle requires 20 credits to graduate.

Seattle has not considered anything similar in earlier grades, Wilson said. A few districts across the nation have stopped what's called "social promotion," although there's a lot of research that shows holding students back hurts more than helps them.

When asked if the change might make more students drop out, Wilson said he's more worried about them dropping out if they take the WASL before they're ready and fail.

The change won't necessarily affect student participation in social activities with their chronological class. That would be left up to each high school, Wilson said. It also would not affect sports.

School Board member Irene Stewart praised the idea.

"My gut feeling is that this will be much, much better in the long run," she said.

Board member Sally Soriano, however, said she would like the change to be phased in more slowly.

Wilson said he has wanted to see this change since he was a principal in Seattle in the 1980s. Seventeen of the district's 18 high-school principals support it, he said.

"It's going to be a culture change in the schools," Wilson said. "But it's going to be a change that says accountability."

Phil Brockman, principal at Ballard High, said principals support the reclassification not because of the WASL but as a way to keep students on track to graduate.

"Some still think if they complete four years and are taking senior classes with friends, they're going to be able to walk at graduation, when that's not true," he said. If students fail classes and don't make them up through summer school or night classes, they don't graduate.

In the Kent School District, students who don't have enough credits to be a sophomore don't take the WASL, said spokeswoman Becky Hanks. They also aren't listed as sophomores in the school yearbook, she said, and can't attend sophomore class meetings.

Seattle officials said Shoreline, Tacoma, Central Valley, Central Kitsap, Clover Park and Puyallup have similar credit-based policies.

In Puyallup, however, district spokeswoman Karen Hansen said her district abandoned its policy about two years ago because it didn't work well.

"We found it was not a good policy and didn't help kids," she said. "We found they didn't make up the credits."

A spokeswoman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said her office would need to study Seattle's plan before making any comment on it.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sanjay Bhatt and Nick Perry contributed to this report.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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