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Originally published Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Education fever — catch it

Between today's release of results from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and the federal government's list of schools falling...

Between today's release of results from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and the federal government's list of schools falling short of improvement goals, educators are renaming this Hell Week.

Teachers are growing defensive, snapping that, of course they grasp their students' deficiencies, so get off them, already. Principals mutter darkly about unfunded mandates.

As if educators weren't already feeling the heat, Seattle City Hall sent up a not-so-gentle reminder that the $116.8 million Families and Education Levy is available to the Seattle Public Schools, but contingent on academic improvements.

In public education's almost century-worth of mediocrity, the chickens are finally coming home to roost. The sounds you hear are people scrambling to duck.

Better get used to the warm temperatures of a frequent and more intensive spotlight on how well schools educate our children. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, every state has to publish school and district improvement data. In addition to the law's high expectations and no-excuses attitude, it gives parents enough information to make them part of the solution or the problem. Educators say learning is too complex a process to rest solely in their hands. They're right.

From the WASL to the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the federally mandated list of schools making yearly progress, the barometers are everywhere.

The annual release of test scores has taken on hyper-importance because of the escalating set of consequences in store for schools that falter rather than grow. Consequences! Shudder!

Public schools have operated on such a loose system that critics equate consequences with punishment. But students failed by public education have been suffering the consequences all along.

There shouldn't be much wailing in Washington state. Thanks to our early embrace of education reform, we remain ahead of the curve. About 185 schools across the state were placed on the federal list for failing to meet annual performance goals. Yes, this is an increase from last year, but two things to consider before descending into hysteria.

One, the number of districts on the list remains unchanged at 29 — including Seattle Public Schools — meaning academic performance in those districts did not worsen even as standards rose. Two, some of the schools will appeal their placement on the list, causing a closer analysis of their test results. Federal officials expect some of those appeals to be successful and the eventual number of schools on the list to fall closer to last year's.

An assortment of benchmarks places this state in a positive academic light. Math and verbal scores on the SAT are at an all-time high. Washington continues to rank among the top-achieving states in the nation on another college-readiness exam, the ACT. The average composite score earned by Washington high-school graduates for 2005 — 22.7 — exceeds the national average of 20.9 and is matched only by a few other states with similar participation rates.

Of course, there will always be one study or another comparing our kids with some automatons in a foreign country and making us feel we aren't measuring up. Personally, I'd rather my 4-year-old grow up to create the most novel school of art since Cubism, but I understand that America operates on a global platform and must raise its educational standards to compete.

This is why, rather than feel inundated or penalized by the rise in expectations and the sharp-edged presence of enforcement measures, educators should emerge from Hell Week with a sense of what's working and what's not.

Rainier Beach High School has been cited in the news because test results show it needs more academic improvement than any public school in Seattle. Thanks to the data, we even know what topic students at the school are most challenged by — basic math. Attention should move from feelings of embarrassment to plans that include assessing the school's math curriculum and how it's taught, adding more math tutors and reminding parents that their job doesn't end in the school parking lot.

I know. The playing field is not level. Students start from different points on the academic continuum. But in the heat of this week, if we reach for that tired excuse, we're ignoring the possibility that most can catch up if afforded the right chance.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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