Saturday, September 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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WASL results show strong gains, puzzling declines across the state

Seattle Times staff reporter

Scores on this year's Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) hit some rough patches, with dips in math in the fourth and seventh grades, and a dive in seventh-grade reading so deep it has many educators scratching their heads.

On the positive side, writing scores continued on an upward curve, and last spring's sophomores (now juniors) showed strong gains in reading and writing.

Still, about half of that class, the class of 2008, has yet to pass all three sections of the test — reading, writing and math — required to graduate. For most of them, the problem was math. Of students who passed two of the three subjects, about 92 percent fell short in math.

The math failure rate continues to be so large that even state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson says she's willing to discuss easing the math requirement for the short term.

"We have to have a thoughtful debate about this," she said.

On Friday, Bergeson released all the scores on the WASL, which is given each spring. For students in grades four, seven and 10, the test covers reading, writing and math. This year, for the first time, the reading and math sections were also given in grades three, five, six and eight, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Students in grades five, eight and 10 also take science tests.

Bergeson downplayed the surprising decline in the passage rate in seventh-grade reading, which fell to 61.4 percent, compared with 68.9 last year. The drop was so big, and so consistent across so many districts, that 14 superintendents in Snohomish County had urged Bergeson not to release the scores.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) checked to make sure the problem wasn't in the scoring or construction of the test, which satisfied some of the superintendents.

Officials think part of it may have to do with the statistics involved in setting a passing score each year on tests that don't have all the same questions from year to year.

Bergeson called the drop an "anomaly," which OSPI will study further.

"People should not go crazy about this one data point," she said.

Critics, however, say the unexplained drop in those scores illuminates the problem they've been talking about for years.

"It's a perfect illustration of why we should not read too much into any one test," said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The union, he said, will lobby strongly again this year to remove the WASL as a graduation requirement.

Other education groups, however, said it's important to remember the progress that's been made.

"While we have dips along the way, we have really gone a long way on behalf of kids," said Gary Kipp, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals.

Some said they won't overreact to one score not consistent with other measures. "We're just trying to tease it apart and figure out what happened," said Vicki Fisher, a principal at Sylvester Middle School in Highline, which gained 20 points in reading last year but dropped 10 this year.

This is the 10th year of the WASL, which grew out of a 1993 law that mandated new, higher learning standards for students, new state tests and increased accountability for students and schools.

This year's juniors are the first class that must pass the reading, writing and math sections of the 10th-grade WASL to earn their diplomas. Of those who took the test last spring, 52 percent passed all three required subjects. (When students who missed the test are counted, however, 55 percent are still short of meeting the requirement.)

Students can take the test up to five times for free and, if they fail twice, can show their skills through one of several alternatives. In 2010, students must pass science as well.

Often, the schools that score the highest and lowest on the WASL are predictable because test scores are highly correlated with students' family incomes. And that makes many question the fairness of using the test as a graduation requirement.

Yet despite all the angst over the WASL, Washington students do well on other exams, such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Bergeson said she was much less worried about the drop in seventh-grade reading than the fourth-grade reading scores, which remain stalled for the third year. And math — in all grades — remains a dilemma.

"Math is the big bump in the road for me," she said.

For the first time, she publicly said she would consider allowing some 10th-graders in the class of 2008 to earn their diplomas without passing the math section of the 10th-grade WASL or an equally rigorous alternative.

There is a national, as well as statewide, challenge in math instruction, she said, and students shouldn't get caught in the middle.

"People are pretty fair-minded, and legislators have said we haven't put enough resources into this," she said.

She doesn't want to eliminate or even lower the math standard. But she said it gave her and many others pause to see that nearly half of the 10th-graders who took the WASL last spring failed the math section. And more than half of those failed it by a lot.

She said she hasn't decided what she wants to do — other than something that doesn't let students slide by without at least improving their math skills.

As a state and a nation, she said, "we're going to get creamed if we slow down in math and science."

Science scores had mixed results, too, inching up this year in fifth grade and falling one percentage point in 10th grade. In eighth grade, the passage rate rose seven percentage points to 43 percent.

Other highlights of this year's scores:

• In Seattle, more than 80 percent of fourth-graders who took the reading test passed.

• All seven Eastside school districts saw gains in eighth-grade science, including Issaquah, which had a 12.3-point increase from last year, and Lake Washington, which saw a 13-point increase.

• The achievement gap statewide is closing in reading and writing, but not in math, where white and Asian-American students are improving at a faster rate as a group than black, Latino and Native American students.

As in all years, there were changes in policy in 2006 that make this year's scores not entirely comparable to last year's. In 2004 and 2005, for example, the passing bar changed in some grades.

This year, more students in special-education programs were allowed to take a WASL alternative or a WASL in a lower grade level.

To help the class of 2008 pass the WASL before graduation, the Legislature approved $28.5 million this year for special summer classes and other remedial programs.

About 30 percent of the students who failed last spring retook the exam in August.

To help the entire class pass by graduation, however, Bergeson said much more money is needed.

Since 1993, she said, schools have received just $101 per student in additional buying power. Without more, she said, "we've gone about as far as we can."

Times staff reporters Emily Heffter, Lynn Thompson and Rachel Tuinstra contributed to this report.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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