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Fourth-Graders Flunk State Test ‘My Breath Was Taken Away,’ Governor Says

Fri., Sept. 5, 1997

More than half of Washington’s fourth-graders flunked the state’s rigorous new test of standards for the three R’s, Gov. Gary Locke and state School Superintendent Terry Bergeson reported Thursday.

Both leaders called the dismal results sobering but said the state won’t turn its back on new “world class” standards to prepare today’s youngsters for a highly competitive 21st century. They said it may take a decade to beef up the schools, but they said the state can settle for no less.

“My breath was taken away,” Locke said after Bergeson released the first test scores showing how well students measure up to higher academic standards just adopted by the state.

Of the four subject areas, a majority of the 68,000 students passed only one: listening skills. About 62 percent could listen to a passage read by the teacher and correctly answer test questions about the content.

The worst scores were in math, where only 22 percent met or exceeded the standards. In reading, 48 percent got passing scores and in writing, 42 percent.

Only 14 percent passed all four areas.

Some students couldn’t show even the most basic of skills.

Spokane School District 81 and other districts that used the test will get results for each school, classroom and student in about a week.

The tests were given last spring, with most school districts taking part in the voluntary project. The exams, written by testing professionals after consulting with a variety of groups, measured how students educated with old methods and curricula are meeting new, higher expectations.

The answer was clear: not very well.

Locke and Bergeson, foremost advocates of the state’s new Education Reform Act that set higher standards and soon will require statewide testing at three grade levels, said the scores are sobering, but no cause for alarm.

“We have a steep mountain to climb,” the governor told several hundred legislators, school officials, state elected officials and students gathered at Foss High Schools’ Little Theater for Bergeson’s first State of Education Address and release of the test scores.

“Lowering the standards is not an option … or we will be sliding back to mediocrity,” he said, adding, “We must move heaven and earth to help today’s students learn more” so they aren’t left behind, ill-equipped to meet challenges and demands their parents never faced.

At a joint news conference, Locke called it “very sobering news,” but added “I don’t believe the bar is set too high. … I don’t think parents should be panicking. We shouldn’t be blaming. It is a map for where we need to go.”

Said Bergeson, “Initially, parents will be worried, and maybe ‘panic’ is the right word. But I wouldn’t be panicking.”

Locke called the tests “truth in education.”

“It’s nice to see kids getting B’s and C’s and A’s, and yet we have employers telling us they don’t know anything” when they graduate and apply for jobs, he said.

In her speech, Bergeson said the system is currently producing about 15 percent to 20 percent who are world-class scholars, 40 percent who are fairly well prepared for life after high school, and about 40 percent who aren’t succeeding.

She said the latter are “the fully capable children who get by, drop out or are unprepared for the world of today and tomorrow. The reasons for these poor performances are complex. But we can no longer make excuses. We cannot afford to short-change 40 percent of our future.”

She said districts must come up with lessons that show “rigor and relevance” and that teachers must concentrate on the basics.

“We tend to have a curriculum that is a mile wide and a half-inch deep,” Bergeson said.

Locke urged parents to turn off the family television set, enforce homework hours, read with and to their children and volunteer in the schools as tutors.

Spokane Superintendent Gary Livingston said he expects scores for students here to match those released Thursday. Schools will get the results first - probably next week - and then share individual student scores with parents.

Teachers will begin making changes in the way they teach so kids gradually raise their scores, he said. For instance, educators expect to spend more time on statistics and problem-solving.

“Will it happen quickly? No. Will it happen painlessly? No,” he said.

The district has spent the past three years overhauling its curriculum to help kids get up to speed, Livingston said.

One conservative parents group in Spokane criticized the test itself, saying it moves too far from the basics. Correct answers play a minor role, overshadowed by the emphasis on how kids arrive at answers, said Muriel Tingley, a member of Washington Parents Coalition for Academic Excellence.

She’s also suspicious of the huge public relations effort state officials put into releasing the initial low scores. “You don’t need a major P.R. program to sell something to parents if it’s working. You only need it if it’s not working,” Tingley said.

“I think it’s outward evidence that education reform has failed.”

Locke said it’s far too soon to make such a statement.

“Having this true test with high expectations is the result of education reform,” he said. “This is a first step, and we have a long ways to go.”

Better schools will cost more money, including a heavy emphasis on retraining the existing teacher corps, Locke and Bergeson said. Bergeson suggested lawmakers think about exempting public education from the spending limits of Initiative 601, which holds spending growth to inflation, plus the rate of general population growth. She said Washington has the nation’s seventh fastest-growing school-age population.

So far, the fourth-grade tests - including developing, administering and scoring - have cost about $2.2 million. Scoring a single test costs about $14.50, said Marc Frazer, spokesman for the state Commission on Student Learning.

Locke agrees with Bergeson’s position on I-601, but isn’t pursuing it as long as Republicans control the Legislature.

Rep. Gigi Talcott, R-Tacoma, a veteran teacher and a GOP leader on education, called the test scores horrifying, but said they’re a wake-up call and should have positive impact.

Seattle school Superintendent John Stanford, who is drawing national attention for improvements in the state’s largest district, said the test results are helpful, rather than depressing. Reforms are “absolutely on the right track” and schools will find ways to meet the higher standards, he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Washington’s new assessment test

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ROUNDTABLE Reaction: Gov. Gary Locke and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson explain why the state’s test scores are low and what parents and educators can do next.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ROUNDTABLE Reaction: Gov. Gary Locke and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson explain why the state’s test scores are low and what parents and educators can do next.

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