A little better in some spots, slightly worse in others.
But when last year’s WASL scores were released Tuesday, there was none of the dramatic across-the-board improvements that Washington educators have seen in other years.
“We seem to have to kind of flat-lined a little bit,” said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell, after taking her first glance at scores on the tests that are given every year in grades 3 through 8, and again in grade 10.
Terry Bergeson, state superintendent of public instruction, called it a “plateau.”
The good news: The class of ’09 is a little better off than the class of ’08. Eighty-six percent of incoming seniors are starting the school year having passed the 10th-grade WASL in reading and writing, compared with 84 percent of last year’s seniors.
That doesn’t include students who have dropped out – a number that’s hard to pin down, but that Bergeson acknowledges is too high.
The mixed news: Passage rates improved in every grade taking the writing and science tests. Still, more than half the kids who took the science test received a failing grade.
The bad news: Numbers for the math portion of the WASL dropped in some grades.
Sixty-four percent of this year’s seniors are starting the school year having passed the math test, which is not yet a graduation requirement. That’s compared with 67 percent of last year’s seniors.
The lower grades, too, continue to struggle with math, with a drop of more than 4 percentage points in the number of fourth- and seventh-graders passing; smaller drops among third- and sixth-graders; and only slight improvements among fifth- and eighth-graders.
“We have a lot of turmoil around mathematics,” said Bergeson, who is up for re-election in November, facing an opponent who contends the WASL should not be used as the state’s standardized test.
With new statewide math standards, over time “we’re going to see achievement begin to change dramatically,” Bergeson predicted during a Renton press conference that aired live on TVW, the state’s cable television station.
It wasn’t just math that stumped fourth- and seventh-graders. There also were marked declines in the percentage of those students who passed reading.
Bergeson speculated that math and reading educators are worn out from years of standardized testing in which the stakes are high and getting higher. Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, schools are judged by students’ performance and are put on a probation of sorts if any subgroup of students – special education students, or those just learning English – fails to keep up.
The percentage of students who must pass in each subgroup was ratcheted up this year and by 2014 will hit 100 percent, a goal that educators say is unattainable.
Of course, Congress and a new president could decide to change the rules. And Bergeson hopes they do. “I’ve been one of the great proponents in the country for No Child Left Behind in terms of its goal” of seeing all children succeed, Bergeson said.
But it’s a “fatal flaw” that otherwise succeeding schools can be penalized for failing to meet high standards in a few categories.
“It’s getting people discouraged and it’s unfair, and we have to find ways to fix that,” she said.
While Bergeson can’t change federal rules, she is overseeing a change in the WASL that might have students rejoicing this spring. She’s cutting the time spent taking the WASL by two to four hours in third through eighth grades. (Tenth-graders will get no break.)
Bergeson said officials have spent years working to streamline the test without “dumbing it down.”
School officials also are looking into the idea of moving WASL testing from April to May because they think testing could be less disruptive to learning if held near the end of the school year.
Bergeson is running for her fourth term as superintendent of public instruction, and the WASL is a top election issue.
Randy Dorn, a former teacher, legislator and union executive she’s facing in the general election, says keeping students out of class for weeks at a time to take the WASL doesn’t build the relationships that help students achieve. Nor does it help to give a lower priority to activities such as music, art and sports that encourage students to keep coming to school, he has argued.