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Originally published August 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 31, 2007 at 2:09 AM

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Most seniors pass WASL; concern over lower levels

With more than 80 percent of high-school seniors passing enough of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to graduate, state...

Seattle Times education reporter

With more than 80 percent of high-school seniors passing enough of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to graduate, state officials Thursday turned their attention to the lower grades, where fourth-grade reading, writing and math scores dipped.

"High schools can't carry this ball alone," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson said in announcing the 2007 WASL scores.

Seventh-grade scores improved statewide. Math jumped from a passage rate of less than half to 54 percent, while nearly 70 percent of seventh-graders passed the writing part of the test. In reading, seventh-graders made up ground lost in 2006.

Of 10th-graders, about 81 percent passed reading, 84 percent passed writing and about 50 percent passed math.

This year's statewide fourth- and fifth-grade reading scores slipped by 5 percentage points each. Fourth-grade math and writing scores stayed essentially level.

Students must pass the reading and writing sections of the WASL to graduate, but legislators this spring gave the class of 2008 some leeway by delaying the graduation requirement to 2013 from 2008 for math and from 2010 for science. The delays give state schools more time to catch up. Only about two-thirds of the 2008 class has passed the math portion.

Students who fail the math portion of the WASL still must take an additional math class to graduate from high school. This year, eighth-grade reading scores also continued to lag. That class' reading scores showed a dramatic dive on the seventh-grade test last year, prompting state education officials to wonder if there was a problem with the scoring or difficulty level of the test. But the same class' scores stayed low when they took the eighth-grade test in the spring.

Bergeson said she couldn't explain the anomaly, but that the class would need extra help with reading to catch up.

"Reading has to be deliberate early or they fall behind," she said.

WASL scores are watched closely by parents choosing schools for their children, district officials seeking to close academic-achievement gaps among kids of different races and income levels, and the state Legislature.

The state released detailed information about the class of 2008, but officials included in those counts only class members who are on track to graduate. Thousands of students who have dropped out or fallen behind in their credits are excluded, prompting some statewide education groups to accuse the state of inflating the passage rate of the 2008 class artificially.

Washington Education Association president Mary Lindquist said she worries the high-stakes test is forcing students out of the system. When they drop out or fall behind, they are not counted in the class of 2008, so the state doesn't report their scores with the rest of their class.

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"We really aren't paying attention to our lowest-performing students, and I think there's a lot of pressure to move those numbers up, and that may encourage those very lowest-performing students not to be counted," she said.

But officials at the state superintendent's office said the scores they're reporting give the clearest picture of how many students will be prevented from graduating because of their WASL scores.

The shrinking class of 2008 helps explain why such a high percentage of that class is passing reading and writing portions of the WASL. This year's scores for the first time included scores of members of the class of 2008 who took the test as ninth-graders.

Bergeson hailed the scores as good news and said they show that the 2008 graduation crisis that had been forecast won't happen.

"They are on the way to graduating in large numbers," she said. "Kids are stepping up to the plate. ... This train wreck everyone has been imagining, it's not going to happen. Kids are going to do it."

Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson said the district's 10th-grade scores — 50 percent passed math, 77.7 percent passed reading and 80.6 percent passed writing — were "not good." Reading and math scores had declined. She said her staff would analyze why scores in the 10th grade dropped from last year.

Statewide, the achievement gap is closing in reading and writing, but not in math, where white and Asian-American students are improving at a faster rate as a group than African-American, Latino and Native American students. Test scores tend to follow family incomes, so many question the fairness of using the test as a graduation requirement.

In Seattle, several schools that had focused on improving their scores saw the payoff.

The percentage of students passing Madrona K-8's fourth-grade writing test in 2007 — 53.8 percent — doubled over the past year after three years of modest gains. Reading scores, which had fallen last year, also made a leap.

Madrona K-8 Principal Kaaren Andrews has put a strong focus on improving scores over the past three years, dedicating each morning to intense instruction in reading and math.

The Madrona staff told students their scores and asked them to set goals to improve this year. Andrews faced criticism for the focus, and some families left the school.

"We had to experience discomfort in order to move forward," she said. "Now that we have the momentum going, we'll just be taking it up another notch next year."

Even if a fairly low percentage of students is passing the test, Goodloe-Johnson said she was encouraged by big gains that mean schools are catching up.

In Federal Way, Superintendent Tom Murphy said he was pleased with the gains made in seventh and 10th grades but disappointed with the elementary-level scores, which dropped slightly in math and reading.

Like many districts in South King County, Federal Way has seen its demographics shift significantly, with more than 42 percent of students now qualifying for free and reduced lunch and more than 80 languages spoken in the schools.

That means only one thing to Murphy: The district has to try harder.

"It doesn't matter where the kids come from, or whether they're in poverty or not," he said. "We know what our job is, and our job is to get them to meet or exceed standards."

African-American and Hispanic students still are struggling with math at all levels, he said, and that is unacceptable. The district this year is phasing in an algebra-preparation curriculum for at-risk students. It's also implementing the College Board's middle-school curriculum in reading and writing.

On the Eastside, WASL scores for 10th-graders showed increases in all districts, with only a few slight declines.

Northshore, Issaquah and Mercer Island school districts saw a drop in their 10th-grade test-takers' scores. However, at least 90 percent of 10th-grade test-takers in those three districts met the minimum standards in reading and writing.

There are alternatives to the WASL. Some students have submitted their scores on the SAT or ACT to meet the math requirement, and other students have arranged to submit a portfolio of work.

Seattle Times staff reporters Cara Solomon and Amy Roe contributed to this story. Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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