About 85 percent of Washington's high school juniors have already passed the new reading and writing standards they'll need to get a diploma, the state's top school official said Monday, a slight increase from last year.
But the Washington Assessment of Student Learning results, released Monday, also suggest that English-language learners continue to struggle to pass the controversial test.
Among juniors learning English as a second language, only about 47 percent passed both the reading and writing WASL.
"We have to improve the program resources that high schools have to help these students," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson said. "We've got to work smarter."
She's suggesting giving new immigrants a later graduation date, better screening in bilingual classes for students who need more help, and more state dollars to support these programs. Schools with small populations of non-English speakers are in particular need of help, she said.
This year's seniors – the Class of 2008 – is the first that has to pass the reading and writing WASL or alternatives in order to graduate. Two weeks ago, Bergeson announced that more than 91 percent of seniors met the standard.
Of this year's juniors, Bergeson said, "I know they're going to rise to the challenge, just like this year's graduating class did."
Last August, fewer than 84 percent of this year's seniors were passing, according to Chris Barron, a spokesman at Bergeson's office.
The WASL test has drawn fire from many teachers, education advocates and some lawmakers, who say that the series of tests, starting in 3rd grade, take up too much time and money. They also say that the emphasis on testing has squeezed out other important learning.
Bergeson, business groups and other advocates of the test have long argued that they bring critical accountability to an educational system that needs to show taxpayers that it's working well. Bergeson also argues that the tests show that a diploma is meaningful.
"The Class of 2008 is well-prepared and has the skills to take that next step in life," she said Monday. "Now we want to keep that momentum going."