OLYMPIA – Study hard, seniors.
Fifteen years after state lawmakers launched school reforms that spawned the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, this year’s high school seniors will be the first required to pass it – or show they know the material – to get a diploma.
Despite misgivings from parents, educators and lawmakers about the high-stakes test, it doesn’t look like legislative proponents and the governor are going to back down.
“We do believe that it’s time for the diploma to mean the students can read,” said Marc Frazer, vice president of the business group Washington Roundtable.
Frazer testified Monday before the Senate education committee, which is weighing several WASL-related proposals. Among them: SB 6540, which would push back the test as a graduation requirement to 2013.
“Test them, yes, but don’t say you can’t have a diploma because you don’t count,” said Sen. Marilyn Rasmusssen, D-Eatonville, the bill’s prime sponsor.
Another bill would gut the diploma requirement by prohibiting schools from reporting test results of individual students.
But even some proponents of such a reprieve say it’s highly unlikely.
“I do believe the governor would veto it,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who chairs the committee.
Proponents of the graduation requirement say lawmakers have softened it enough. The class of 2008 was supposed to pass the reading, writing, math and science sections of the test. But with large numbers of students still failing the math and science parts, the governor and lawmakers delayed those as a graduation requirement until 2013. The reading and writing parts, which 85 percent of seniors are passing, remain requirements.
“For your high school diploma, you ought to be able to show you can read and write,” Gregoire told reporters earlier this month. Otherwise, she said, it’s very hard to get a job.
“It’s our duty to stand firm on this,” she said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson agrees with the governor. Students must have “a diploma that really is backed up by the skills,” Bergeson said.
Students can take the test five times. If they still don’t pass, they can turn to alternative assessments such as high grades, classroom work samples and scores on a college placement test like the SAT. And there are special appeals possible for out-of-state transfer seniors, foreign students and those who have special circumstances, such as serious illness.
But critics for years have said the test, given in grades three through 10, unfairly penalizes students for the failures of the educational system. The focus on the high-stakes test is crowding out art, music and creative thinking, they say.
“I see the WASL as a time-stealing device from me teaching your students,” Sam Fields, a teacher at Bethel Junior High School in Pierce County, told lawmakers.
Instead of doing experiments to learn how science works, Fields said, much teaching focuses on things like being sure to include the word “because” in WASL science answers.
Those opposing the test as a graduation requirement include the state Parent-Teacher Association, which says it unfairly threatens the diplomas of some minorities, students struggling to learn English, low-income children and the disabled.
“I want to get the individual child out of the line of fire,” said Ian King, a Microsoft worker and parent who urged lawmakers to “de-link” the test from a diploma. The focus now, he said, is producing an educational goal of “stuff(ing) the sausage skin with WASL facts that are then disgorged on demand.”
Help may be on the way. A bill discussed Monday would provide more testing alternatives. Another would allow students to take a special math course that tests the WASL information in smaller segments. A third would provide extra help for struggling students.
“If we aren’t going to delay anything, if we’re going to move forward, then we need to provide the funding to help those children be successful,” McAuliffe said.
Many lawmakers and educators are pinning their hopes for long-term reform on a task force trying to revamp the way the state pays for schools. The current system, critics say, is absurdly complex and inadequate. The group’s recommendations are due next year.