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Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Many struggle with WASL

Times Snohomish County bureau

Jordan Davis has a recurring fear.

The Mountlake Terrace High School junior sees himself trapped in time, forced to retake the math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning over and over again.

He sat for the WASL math test last spring and failed by two points. He retook it in August and failed by 12. This is a kid who has never gotten below a B in math.

"I've always been good at math. I always liked math. I totally expected to pass the math WASL," he said in a school hallway last month, exasperated. From the moment they entered high school 2 years ago, students in the Class of 2008 have faced the intense scrutiny of educators, politicians and the press. Their struggles with the high-stakes test — this is the first class that must pass reading, writing and math to graduate — have provoked debates about the test's fairness and their schools' ability to prepare them.

But what of the students themselves? How are they coping with the pressure to pass? And what of the 49 percent who failed the math section of the WASL last spring?

In the fall they enrolled in additional math classes and signed up for after-school WASL-prep tutorials, only to see the governor and superintendent of public instruction last month propose a three-year delay in the math-graduation requirement.

Perplexed students

Students at several of the counties' high schools say they're frustrated at the proposed change in the rules and wary of more math classes when the ones they've already taken didn't lift them over the bar. And meanwhile, no one is proposing amnesty for about 1,100 Snohomish County students who still have to pass either the reading or writing tests.

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"We're like guinea pigs in an experiment going wrong," said Caroline Stedman, another Mountlake Terrace High School junior taking a third year of high-school math and a WASL-support class. "It's really ridiculous."

While many students say they're relieved by the prospect of a delay in the math WASL graduation requirement, proposals before the state Legislature call for these teenagers — about 3,300 in Snohomish County — to continue taking math classes until they either pass the state test or graduate.

For many, that brings to mind a kind of "Groundhog Day" movie scenario — being forced to re-live their failures until they finally get it right.

Stedman and Davis are both taking an after-school WASL-prep class at Mountlake Terrace High School three afternoons a week. Their teacher, Jennifer Falck, runs about 20 juniors through WASL-like problems, pausing to point out strategies and to explain what the test scorers will be looking for.

The class is designed to be small enough for Falck to give students individual attention. But with so many juniors failing the math section, the teacher said she has had to turn students away.

Falck said it's hard to see her students struggling. "Fifty percent of the kids couldn't pass math with their graduation depending on it. It must be something with the test or something going on in the classroom. It's not the kids' motivation."

When Falck presents a problem requiring the teenagers to predict the probability of an event, Stedman quickly shouts out a percentage. She's correct, but it takes the rest of the class another 10 minutes to work through several equations to get the answer.

Among her frustrations, Stedman says, is that the content of this WASL-prep class — at least at the beginning — was identical to that of the prep class she took in the summer.

"This feels like the same class. This feels like a waste of time," the junior said.

Math was her strength

Stedman defies the stereotype of those who failed the math WASL. Like Davis, she loves math and has always gotten As and Bs. In the past, a learning disability meant she struggled with reading and writing and had to have an Individual Educational Plan — specialized instruction and materials to address her problems in processing words.

But she passed the WASL reading and writing tests on her first try. It's math, where she previously enjoyed success, that's causing her anxiety.

One possible explanation is her sophomore-year geometry class. Stedman said she had a lousy teacher, one who wasn't rehired in the fall. The class, she said, consisted of students taking notes from the book. This year, she said, she has a "fantastic teacher" for second-year algebra, but she wonders if Algebra 2 can make up for the missing year.

Across the room, Davis also has misgivings about the after-school support class. Like Stedman, he'd had only two years of high-school math when he took the WASL last spring. Now he's taking a third year during the school day and questions the value of the support class. At the same time, he wants to give himself the best possible chance for success.

"I feel like I'm here for a reason, but I don't know if I'm getting everything I need to pass," Davis said.

Edmonds School District officials say the surest predictor of who will pass the math WASL is whether students already have nearly completed their third year of high-school math when they take the test.

Those who had taken only two years of high-school math when they took the WASL had a 51 percent pass rate, while 92 percent of students in their third year passed, said Nancy Katims, Edmonds assessment director.

A typical math sequence is Integrated 1 or Algebra 1 freshman year, Integrated II or geometry sophomore year (when the WASL is taken) and Integrated 3 or Algebra 2 junior year. Edmonds District high schools use both sequences. Mountlake Terrace has the traditional Algebra 1, geometry, and Algebra 2.

Steven Brand, another junior in the after-school WASL class, said he wished he had known the statistics before he took the test. Like Davis and Stedman, he hadn't taken Algebra 2.

"I think that's what crushed me," he said. Brand is an athlete who works out in winter for track and baseball. Those workouts are cut short now that he's in class an hour after school three days a week. He questions the value of the review class because it's material he already knows. But he acknowledges that he could use practice explaining his reasoning.

"Writing things out, that's the toughest for me," he said.

More than numbers

Even more than its math content, the WASL's emphasis on reading and showing work has drawn critics. Students can get the answer to problems right but still lose points if they don't adequately explain how they reached their conclusion. Students who aren't good writers, or who struggle to put their thoughts into words, are penalized on what's supposed to be a math test.

"The test is as much a reading-comprehension test as a math test," said Falck.

Madeleine Collier, a junior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, retook the math test last summer and passed by four points. She's angry that the governor is proposing to delay the math-graduation requirement after all the work she put in.

"I spent the whole summer studying," she said.

Collier's experience, and that of several other students, underlines another problem with the test. The results don't seem to correlate with the grades they earned in math classes. Collier has a 3.97 grade-point average and straight As in math, yet she faced not graduating because she failed the math test the first time around.

"A lot of kids with good grades and high GPAs didn't pass math," she said.

Collier also said her math book and the WASL test didn't line up well. Students in her math class weren't given much practice with WASL-type story problems, while in her language-arts class, the teacher devoted time throughout the year to test practice and strategies.

"This [the WASL] is really a test of how well your teachers taught you over all the years," she said.

The other two "R's"

While the widespread failures in math have garnered the most attention, some students are still struggling to pass the reading and writing sections of the state test. Many of these students are second-language learners who have been in the country only a few years. But even native speakers sometimes struggle with writing and reading, often for lack of practice earlier in their schooling or lack of reinforcement at home, their teachers say.

Unlike the students who are skeptical about the legitimacy of the math WASL, those who must retake reading and writing say those tests do measure skills they should have. And the students say they're optimistic that with more classroom preparation, they can pass on a second attempt.

Bryan Stephens, a junior at Cascade High School in Everett, will retake the writing WASL in the spring. He passed reading, but said he rushes during tests and doesn't take enough time to compose his written answers.

"My teachers keep telling me to slow down, to think about my sentences. They say I can do it if I put my mind to it," Stephens said.

Cascade developed a WASL boot camp last year for students whose test scores suggested they might not pass reading or writing. The classes gave students daily practice in reading passages on different subjects, summarizing main points, drawing inferences about meaning and writing one-paragraph responses, all skills tested on the WASL. A reading-comprehension computer program also helped students with their spelling.

Stephens is now taking a writing-support class to boost his performance. He said he feels encouraged by the teachers at Cascade and believes the extra class is worthwhile.

"The whole point of reading is to understand what you read. The whole point of writing is to be able to put down what you think. Those are things I want to be able to do," he said.

Pressure situation

Alysha Gregg, a junior at Cascade, said she often reads written work aloud to help her understand it. When she sat down in the school cafeteria last spring with several hundred other students to take the WASL reading test, she suddenly realized that she couldn't talk, not even to herself.

"I thought, 'Great. I can't read out loud.' It was hard," she said. She's now taking a reading-support class to improve her skills. Other students had the option of taking an online-reading or writing-skills class, but Gregg doesn't have a computer at home.

Gregg feels pressure to pass the WASL, knowing her diploma depends on the results.

"I have to pass. I have to pass. That worries me," she said.

Gregg fears that some of her classmates will get discouraged if they don't pass the WASL and may drop out. That's a worry shared by school administrators who are now pushing high-school math into eighth grade — so students will have that third year by the time they first take the WASL.

They're also adding double-dose classes for students who fail a WASL subject. Students can fit the extra classes into their days only by giving up electives, subjects that may be the only ones in which they've previously excelled.

But Gregg said dropping out of school would be "idiotic." In the end, she says, the WASL is not about passing a test, but about her future. She wants to go to Everett Community College and become an emergency-medical technician.

"It's really about getting a good education, about having the skills you need. I'm going somewhere," she said.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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