Seattle, WA - 2/1/06 - The WASL debate has taken a major turn, with key education players agreeing to a two-year study that would look at why students fail the test and make recommendations on other ways to demonstrate academic progress. Under a measure passed unanimously Monday by the Senate Education Committee, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy would conduct the study and deliver an interim report and recommendations by Dec. 1, 2006, with the final report due a year later.
(Note: An incorrect date was given in the original version of this article.)
The bill, SB6618, was amended from an original version developed by former Gov. Booth Gardner, which would have allowed students to choose from a range of assessments and removed the requirement that they fail the Washington Assessment of Student Learning twice to be eligible for alternate assessments.
This year's sophomores become the first class required to pass the 10th grade WASL in order to graduate. The requirement has prompted impassioned debate in the legislative session, with some pressing for greater flexibility and others urging lawmakers to maintain the requirement as is.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who proposed the amendment, said it was clear after hearings on several WASL-related bills that a compromise was needed to draw together increasingly polarized parties.
The Senate met with the various groups involved last week, she said, and asked them to join forces in support of the bill.
"We had to get every group on board, and we're very fortunate," she said. "This bill really is a combination of everyone who was involved. All of the education stakeholders have got their words in here."
Calling the bill "a great compromise," Gardner said: "This is going to happen. We're going to get the right kind of test approved for the kids who are passing, then we can concentrate on those who might not pass."
The $400,000 study will look at the characteristics of students who fail any portion of the test at any grade level. It will examine possible barriers to academic progress, such as poverty, language challenges and learning disabilities, and address charges from some that the test is culturally biased and not relevant to children from diverse backgrounds.
It is also expected to review assessments used by other states, national tests, career skill certification courses and alternate tests proposed by the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which are expected to be in place by October, pending legislative approval. The institute will look into the cost of implementing additional assessments and report back to lawmakers with recommendations on the best options.
But legislators stressed that the initiative does not remove the WASL graduation requirement and is not intended to lessen standards students are required to meet.
"This bill supports the WASL being in place as a graduation requirement," McAuliffe said. "If I had a message to tell parents and students at this point, I'd say do your very best on the WASL. Try really hard to pass it.
"If you pass the WASL this time, you're done. You can go on to challenging classes. You can take college readiness courses. You have 11th and 12th grade to do great things."
Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, said the House Education Committee would vote soon on a companion bill mirroring the one passed by the Senate committee. He said he supports the amendment.
"This is saying keep the WASL, but we're looking for other assessment tools," he said. "Many (people) are saying we need more than just one test and that there are going to be a lot of bright kids that aren't going to be able to demonstrate that they met the standards on just the WASL only."
Quall said the revised bill quells the "WASL war" that was waging between groups with divergent perspectives.
"Support for this study is bringing people back together again. They feel like they're being heard."
The Washington State PTA and the Washington Education Association, which represents the state's teachers, were supporting a bill that would have created a weighted graduation model allowing higher achievement in one area to offset lower progress in another, and would have included other requirements besides the WASL as graduation determinants.
WEA President Charles Hasse said that although he hoped for substantial WASL reform this session, the study will effectively lay the groundwork for future changes.
Hasse said he's optimistic the interim report a year from now would still allow enough time to implement changes that may help mitigate a spike in dropout rates some are predicting for the class of 2008.
The amendment represents a substantial move forward from a year ago, Hasse said, when a "tremendous uproar" arose over a proposal to consider technical and vocational tests as possible WASL alternatives.
"It was heresy to suggest even studying a change," he said. "The fact that this study bill has gotten this far and has support from people who last year were opposing more limited study is significant."
P-I reporter Deborah Bach can be reached at 206-448-8197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.