Jordan Wirth has already ordered announcements for University High School’s commencement.
He’s hoping to mail them to friends and family for the June 7 ceremony, as well as wear the cap and gown he’s already paid for.
“I’ve been with the same group of people for, like, 12 years of school,” Wirth said. “I’d like to walk with them across the stage.”
Whether he will be able to do that is a matter of debate in the Central Valley School District, and among school districts across Washington.
Wirth – who has been on U-Hi’s honor roll for maintaining above-average grades – is among roughly 15 percent of seniors in the state who haven’t passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. This is the first year that students must pass the reading and writing portions of the WASL to graduate. Math and science requirements were pushed back to 2013 by the Legislature last year after an alarming failure rate.
Now district officials are trying to decide whether students who have exhausted all their options should be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies.
Wirth has taken the reading test four times and is working on a portfolio of work to show he knows the material. But he might not know before graduation whether his portfolio work will satisfy state officials.
So the question remains: Should he and other students like him be allowed to walk at commencement if they have enough credits and have met all other state and district requirements? Ultimately, they won’t receive high school diplomas without passing the WASL or a state-sanctioned alternative, such as a learning portfolio called a “collection of evidence.”
But the alternatives are still taking form, and the rules remain unclear.
“It’s pretty hard for us to agree to penalize kids because the system failed,” said Paul Sturm, superintendent of the Pullman School District, where board members decided last year to allow WASL-deficient students to participate in 2008 graduation ceremonies.
“The board just couldn’t find a compelling reason to hold them out,” Sturm said.
Spokane Public Schools administrators are just beginning to have that discussion. Officials are “caught between not wanting to penalize kids and keeping high standards,” Superintendent Nancy Stowell said.
Spokane high schools will begin offering courses for students next semester to help them complete WASL portfolios as an alternative to the test, Stowell said. But the results of those portfolios won’t be known until August, after the state has a chance to review them.
“High school principals know each of those kids by name,” Stowell said. “There are a lot of complexities, and it’s the first time we’ve been through all of this.”
Districts across the state are taking up the issue.
“The issue is about what (commencement) symbolizes,” said Glenys Hill, superintendent of the 5,100-student Kelso School District in Cowlitz County. “If the student has satisfied all district requirements … that student is entitled to walk across the stage.”
Pullman went a step further. When that school district decided students who haven’t passed the WASL can walk in commencement, it also changed the rules so a senior who lacks credits and plans to attend summer school can participate, as well.
At a recent Central Valley board meeting, member Cindy McMullen said changing the rules could create “an equity issue.”
For instance, she said, some Running Start students who attend college courses while in high school have not yet taken a WASL. But they have completed all other graduation requirements. Would they be allowed to walk?
“It’s a subjective decision,” McMullen said. “And who gets to make it? We don’t want walking to mean these kids have graduated.”
As the commencement debate continues, the state Legislature is considering bills that would provide more testing alternatives and assistance for struggling students. But those bills wouldn’t help this year’s struggling seniors.
U-Hi’s Wirth, 17, said creating his portfolio has been even more challenging than the WASL itself, but he feels confident his work will “pass.” He said students in his class are feeling stress as they prepare to submit their work to the state, because so much hinges on it. And, he said, because the rules keep changing. For example, each portfolio needs a cover sheet; this week the state changed the color of the cover sheet from white to green. If it doesn’t meet exact requirements, a student’s work could be rejected.
“From one week to the next the target hasn’t stayed in the same place,” said Evan Sorenson, a CV administrator who has been working with the state on portfolio requirements.
As of last year, when they were juniors, the district had more than 100 kids at risk of not earning a diploma because of the WASL. There are now only 43 seniors at risk, and they’re all submitting portfolios, Sorenson told school board members last week.
“I’m surprised we haven’t had more of these seniors say, ‘You know what, I give up,’ ” Sorenson said. “They are working very, very hard.”