Credibility test looms for WASL

EDUCATION: Legislators, educators worry about tight budget, look at alternatives.

Mary Lane Gallagher, The Bellingham Herald

The tightfisted economy couldn't have come at a worse time for Washington's effort to overhaul its schools.

Nine years ago, lawmakers passed the Education Reform Act, paving the way for higher academic standards in reading, math, writing, listening and other subjects. Since then, schools have tried to transform classrooms and teaching practices in hopes of making sure all students meet the standards.

This year's seventh-graders will be the first students held accountable for all of those changes. Unless there's a change in state law, they'll be the first who must pass the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning in order to receive their high school diploma.

If last year's sophomores were held to the same standard, 70 percent of their high school diplomas would be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in January will face the challenge of plugging a $2 billion hole in the state budget.

"Right at the time we need to be very serious and intentional about resources, we have the worst budget scenario we've faced in my 35 years in this state," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. "That's the crisis we face."

Money fight

Two years ago, state voters approved Initiative 728, which by 2004 will pump $450 per student into districts to reduce class sizes and pay for after-school programs, teacher training and other programs to help students meet the new academic standards.

But that money won't provide much extra help if the Legislature cuts funding to public schools.

Bergeson said the state needs to earmark money to let students retake the WASL test. She also plans to lobby the Legislature for money to develop alternatives to the test for kids who have the skills to meet the standards but can't demonstrate abilities in a written test."We're going to go after those resources," she said. "It's going to be a fight to the death here this winter."

Many school superintendents and principals say the state must provide more help for struggling students if the state is serious about bringing all students - including low-income kids, those still learning English and those with special learning needs - up to the same high academic standards.

If lawmakers can't provide that help, they should delay imposing the graduation requirement, said Bellingham Superintendent Dale Kinsley.

Ferndale Superintendent Roger Lehnert agrees.

"The effort we're undertaking is a massive undertaking," he said. "It's one of those centerpieces in the history of education in this state. If we're not going to support it financially, I think we need to get out of it."

The Legislature is also ready for some serious talks about the test, said Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, chairman of the House Education Committee.

"There's going to be a definite discussion on what adjustments need to be made," he said. "I'm not saying a decision will be made this year, but I think the process needs to be started.

"If you wait too long, it'll look like you're backing down," he said. "It's better to make a wise decision early on rather than at the 11th hour."

Test under study

Gov. Locke is ready to talk about change, too. He recently surprised Bergeson by announcing his support for scuttling plans to expand the WASL from reading, writing and math to other subjects, such as social studies, arts, health and fitness. He also proposed dropping the listening portion of the exam, but keeping the science test, now in the final stages of development.

But Locke last week softened his stance on tests for social studies, art, and health and fitness. He told a group of school officials, business leaders and members of philanthropic organizations gathered in Seattle that he favored "optional tests linked to the standards" in those academic areas.

"But as a state, we need to focus on the basics for the WASL," Locke said, "the core subject areas."

Locke also said he wanted to develop alternatives to the test for kids who fail it but still have the skills to graduate.

"All kids do not perform the same way from one test to another," he said. "There cannot be only one way of testing proficiency."

The state should also provide for "retakes" and take another "hard look" at the test to figure out how well students should do on the test in order to graduate, he said.

"We've got to get moving," Locke said. "We need to have the rules of the game in place by 2004."

In her State of Education address to the state's school boards on Friday, Bergeson proposed a model to "allow a student's strengths in one area, like reading, to offset a relative weakness in another, like writing or mathematics."

Quall said lawmakers also want to debate the reliance on the 10th-grade test as the sole measure of how well students meet academic standards. Quall said he'd support keeping the test, but allowing students who don't pass it to complete an equally rigorous demonstration that they've met the standards.

'Legitimate issue'

Educators who say the state should put off requiring 10th-graders to pass the WASL unless more money becomes available to prepare kids to pass it are raising a "legitimate issue," Quall said.

"You've got to demonstrate you've given students an opportunity to learn what needs to be learned," he said. "If you can't demonstrate that, you're in legal trouble."

Bergeson said that's one of the reasons she wants to provide at least four extra chances for students to pass sections of the test they missed the first time. Judges presiding over lawsuits questioning the fairness of other states' graduation tests have indicated that students need at least four opportunities to sit for the exam again, she said.

"Part of the worries people have is they think it's a one-shot deal because the Legislature (in a previous session) took away money for retakes," Bergeson said. "Starting in 2004, the kids need to be able to take it over again several times if it's a graduation requirement."

But she doesn't back school officials who urge the state to push back the timeline if there's not more funding.

"I don't want to say a certain amount of money (or) we'll have to stop," she said. "A lot of people want to stop anyway."

Allowing students to take the test more than once, and giving them alternative ways of passing the test, would make the WASL more acceptable as a graduation requirement, said Ferndale's Lehnert.

"If it was a one-time test, a one-shot, winner-take-all, I would have some problems," he said. "But I don't think that will be the end result."

Other alternatives

The state is still working out alternatives to the WASL, said Jennifer Vranek, executive director of Partnership for Learning, a business-backed group that has been a staunch supporter of the state's education reforms.

One idea is to have students gather a "body of evidence," such as a collection of essays or a series of math projects, showing their skills, Vranek said. The trick will be to make sure students who submit work in Bellingham are judged by the same standards as students in Yakima, Bellevue or Kelso, she said.

"We can't make this an easy out," Vranek said.

An option would be to send all the papers to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for a final sign-off.

"If we can figure this out, we'll be doing better than any other state out there," Vranek said. "The hardest thing we have to figure out is how to keep it fair and to keep the rigor and consistency."

Meanwhile, the state Board of Education must still give its final blessing to the 10th-grade test as a graduation requirement. The board must first decide that the test is valid - that reading tests really measure reading skills, for example - and reliable, meaning a student's score is the same when judged by different scorers and on different versions of the same test.

A board subcommittee studying the reliability and validity of the WASL is scheduled to issue its recommendation in May. Then the board will announce in 2004 whether the requirement will stick.

If the public isn't convinced that the test is reliable, they won't support it as a graduation requirement, said Mary Jo Durborow, a longtime Ferndale School Board member.

"It's got to be a really trusted instrument before the public will agree to it," she said.

Few incentives

It's hard to tell how many of the 70 percent or so of last year's sophomores who didn't pass the test would have aced it had they known graduation was at stake.

Last year's 10th-graders left blank more than 22 percent of the open-ended questions on the math test. They were also three to four times as likely as younger students to blow off questions on the reading and writing tests. And sophomores were the most likely to just skip the test altogether.

"It's hard to determine where we need to shore up the instruction if they don't take it seriously," said Cynthia Sicilia, director of curriculum for Ferndale School District.

Sehome High School Principal Jim Kistner said he gives students a pre-test pep talk when they sit for the exam in the spring. It's an uphill battle to get students to take the test seriously, he said.

"I've had students say 'I understand what you're saying to me, but truly, why would it matter to me?'"

"They hate it," said Meridian High School junior Lauren Opstad. "They think they shouldn't have to take it."

So far, schools and districts can provide few real incentives for skeptical teens. Some schools have presented certificates to students who pass all four sections of the WASL, and published their names in school yearbooks and newsletters, just like honor rolls are often published in newspapers.

But what started as a motivation turned into a deterrent, said Becky Elmendorf principal at Squalicum High School. Some parents said they'd have their kids opt out of the test if the school published the names of those who pass it. Kids have many chances to make the honor roll, parents said, but only one to pass the test.

"Until we get to the point where it really means something from kids, we're going to continue to do this kind of battle," Elmendorf said.

Bergeson wants to see the test used in consideration for admission to public colleges and universities in the state. Passing the test also could be a requirement for the state-funded Promise Scholarship, which provides up to $1,000 in in-state college tuition to top high school graduates.

Other suggestions include linking the test to admission to Running Start or to training and apprenticeship programs, or even to more advanced high school courses.Students - like teachers, principals, parents and superintendents - are waiting for signals that the state is going to stick with the graduation requirement, Bergeson said.

"There are a lot of signals we're sending to students and teachers that we're not really sure that we're serious about this," she said.

"We cannot do all of what we've done and then quit now. It would be crazy."


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