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Originally published Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

The great WASL scam

Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction, proudly crows that about 84 percent of the current senior class in Washington high...

Special to The Times

Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction, proudly crows that about 84 percent of the current senior class in Washington high schools has passed both the reading and writing portions of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning required for graduation in June 2008.

Bergeson said, "Kids are stepping up to the plate. ... The train wreck everyone has been imagining, it's not going to happen. Kids are going to do it."

Eighty-four percent passing — sounds great, right? But Bergeson is not telling us the whole story with this figure. Also, it's hard to know what's actually happening because the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Web site provides contradictory data.

Let's begin with OSPI's grade-level-enrollment figures from October 2006, the most recent numbers posted on the site. According to these tables, there were 90,444 ninth-graders in Washington public schools that month and only 77, 242 12th-graders. Comparing a state's ninth-grade enrollment with its 12th-grade enrollment provides what's called a school attrition rate. It's not a precise measure of dropouts, because the number of students in each grade varies from year to year. However, it does give a general sense of what's going on.

These figures show 13,202 more ninth-graders than 12th-graders, which suggests that about 15 percent of the students are leaving school between the start of ninth grade and the start of 12th grade. This fits roughly with the official dropout rate as listed by OSPI: 5.7 percent per year. Three years times 5.7 equals 17.1 percent.

However, this figure is almost certainly too low to be accurate, as I'll explain in a moment. Nonetheless, even if we accepted this as valid — a 17-percent attrition rate in the class of 2008 — it blows a considerable hole in Bergeson's claim of WASL victory.

Using this figure as a baseline, of the students entering ninth grade in 2004 — the class of 2008 — only 84 percent of the 83 percent of the students still in school in 2007 have passed the WASL for graduation. That means that 70 percent of the class has passed the WASL, not 84 percent.

But, even this percentage is not credible. On the same OSPI Web site, the state's "on-time graduation rate" is listed as 70 percent. That number suggests that many fewer students in the original class of 2008 are headed toward on-time graduation.

Multiple studies about dropout rates have been conducted in recent years both nationally and in Washington. Just about every study of this sort has found that every state's chief school officer — Bergeson in Washington — understates the actual high-school-dropout rate. One study funded by the Gates Foundation found Washington's graduation rate to be 67 percent. This means that 33 percent of students dropped out. Other studies have found a little bit higher percentage of graduates.

Let's take OSPI's own claim and see how it plays out. Seventy percent of students graduate on time; 30 percent don't. We know that most students who drop out do so before they get to 12th grade. Very few students achieve senior status and then drop out. Just to be on the safe side, let's allow for some seniors to quit during 12th grade and say that 72 percent of the original class of 2008 are included in the current roster of seniors.

If we take 84 percent — the passing rate — of the 72 percent of the students included in Bergeson's count, this means that only about 60 percent of the original members of the class of 2008 have passed the WASL.

When you have 40 percent of your kids failing, it's hard to see why Bergeson is claiming victory. Forty percent of our kids failing is very bad news indeed.

Bergeson's tactic of ignoring the entire class of 2008 — and focusing only on the 70 percent or so who made it to the 12th grade on time — unfortunately is typical of too many chief state school officers. Massachusetts claims a 95 percent passing rate on its graduation tests, even though 30 percent of its kids drop out. Texas has claimed 85 percent passing, even though its most recent school attrition rate is 34 percent.

Standards-and-testing — the Essential Academic Learning Requirements/WASL system — was supposed to deliver "world-class schooling" for all kids. That was the original promise. Then Bergeson amended it to only 80 percent of the kids. Now she's claiming victory even though only about 60 percent of the kids are likely to pass the WASL and graduate on time.

Is this really a great achievement after 14 years and who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing? And, are our schools not pretty much where we were in 1992 before we started with this unproven yet very expensive obsession with standards and high-stakes testing?

And, by the way, it's now almost 2008. Google — or voice-recognition software — is at every child's fingertips. Does it really make any sense any longer to try to compel our digitally native kids all to learn the same stuff?

David Marshak is an emeritus professor in the College of Education at Seattle University.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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