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Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Panel lowers bar for passing parts of WASL

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The scores needed to pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) will go down a little this year for fourth- and seventh-graders, and perhaps next year for 10th-graders as well.

A blue-ribbon panel voted unanimously yesterday to lower the passing bar in reading and math for the fourth- and seventh-grade exam, and in reading on the 10th-grade test.

The changes will go into effect this year for fourth- and seventh-graders, giving them a little better chance to pass the two subjects than students in those grades had last spring.

If they'd been in effect last year, the adjustments would have raised the passing rate by 7 to 8 percentage points in seventh-grade reading and math, and by about 3 to 4 percentage points in those subjects in the fourth grade.

The 10th-grade change won't be made until next year at the earliest because it must first be reviewed by the state Legislature.

No changes were recommended for the writing section of the tests.

The panel, the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission, followed all the recommendations made in March by committees, largely made up of educators, that reviewed the WASL passing scores for the first time since the exam debuted in 1997.

The WASL is designed to show whether students — and schools — meet new, higher learning standards developed roughly a decade ago. It is also the test used to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The commissioners didn't settle the question of how high 10th-graders must score to earn their diplomas starting in 2008, the year the WASL is scheduled to become a graduation requirement. That's still under discussion, with the possibility that students will have to earn only a "2" in one or more subjects to graduate. A "3" is now considered a passing score.

The commission plans to make that decision in the fall.

Yesterday's decision disappointed those who think the WASL passing bar is too high and that it will discourage students who now fail in large numbers, especially many ethnic minorities and students who are still learning English.

Officials of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state's largest teachers union, yesterday repeated concerns that the WASL review committee did not include enough representatives from ethnic minority groups or those who work with students learning English or in special education. Without them, union representatives said, the passing-score decision is "less than defensible."

Addressing the review committee, the union also questioned whether the state should maintain such high standards despite its lower-than-average expenditures on education.

Leon Horne, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said it's like trying to run a "Cadillac program on Ikea prices."

Some commission members, however, sharply questioned Horne and Mary Lindquist, president of the Mercer Island Education Association.

"I need to know from WEA what you really want," asked Jim Spady. "If there's nothing we can do to satisfy you, then why should we care what you say?"

Ann Randall, WEA accountability coordinator, later said the union simply wants a test that's fair. As members do more research and find that other states do more to help students succeed on the tests, she said, "It will probably feel like we're never satisfied."

Commission members thanked speakers for raising concerns that most minority students, and those just learning English, fail the exam now. But they added that the status quo isn't helping those students either.

"If we do nothing, I think we'll get more of what we've been getting," Spady said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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