Back when he was a fourth-grader, Alan Guthrie drew a picture of a creature with fangs and claws. Beneath it, he wrote, “My WASL is a huge monster that eats children and gets stronger from their fear.”
Eight school years later, the monster is dead, at least for Guthrie. Part of the most closely watched graduating class in state history, he is departing Lewis and Clark High School having passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.
On Tuesday – a day Washington’s top educator described in terms such as “wonderful” and “extremely exciting” – the state released figures showing that 91 percent of the Class of 2008 has passed the WASL or state-approved alternatives, meaning they’re ready to graduate if they have enough credits and meet other requirements.
The numbers, which some educators contend are inaccurate and which don’t take into account the kids who have dropped out of school, will rise as more students complete requirements during the summer.
“The whole state of Washington should be very proud of this group of students,” Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said during a news conference that was presented as a celebration. She received a bouquet from one WASL supporter.
There have been reprieves on math and science portions of the WASL, and the state has added alternatives for hard-working students who don’t do well on tests.
But for most of this year’s seniors, graduating meant passing the reading and writing portions of the WASL, although they get several attempts to do so.
Students, parents and educators have known since 2000 that this year’s seniors would be the first required to pass the 10th-grade WASL to graduate.
Parents “are all stressed out about it,” one fourth-grade teacher told a Spokesman-Review reporter in 2000, after parent conferences. She was quoted in the same story that featured Guthrie’s monster.
“Their first question is what are they going to do if their child doesn’t pass the 10th-grade test.”
Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said there was a strong fear of failure.
“Maybe we didn’t have enough faith in our own abilities as teachers and administrators, and maybe not enough in our kids,” Stowell said. “I think our kids are showing us that they can hit those higher standards.”
Whether the WASL has improved education is a matter of debate. Bergeson says today’s graduates are better prepared for the 21st century because of the WASL and other requirements.
She’s up for re-election in November, and her chief opponents are critical of the WASL’s role as a graduation requirement.
“When you have one out of 10 kids not passing, I don’t see that as something to celebrate,” said Randy Dorn, a former principal and state legislator and current director of the Public School Employees of Washington, who is running against Bergeson.
The problem, said Dorn, is not with using the WASL as a graduation requirement, something he supported as chairman of the House Education Committee. He contends the assessment test is outdated, unfair, too time-consuming and too expensive.
“How many millions and millions – hundreds of millions – have we spent, and we’re only at reading and writing,” he said.
Dorn also accuses Bergeson of fudging the numbers, saying that when dropouts are added to the students who haven’t passed the WASL, the Class of 2008’s actual failure rate is closer to 40 percent.
Dropout rates are notoriously difficult to track – Dorn cites figures showing about 27 percent of kids who were freshmen in 2004 have dropped out, while Bergeson released numbers Tuesday putting the rate around 15 percent.
She said the numbers are based on the most rigorous tracking of students ever attempted in the state.
But Bergeson, too, acknowledges that schools must do more to keep kids in school, particularly minority students and those from poor families.
There is no debate that the WASL has made schools more stressful, particularly for struggling students.
“I think it’s fair to say that they’ve been pushed higher than any group we’ve had before,” said Gene Sementi, assistant superintendent of the West Valley School District. “The problem is when the pressure is so high they reach the tipping point and give up.”
Those “tipping-point” students often first go to an alternative school – typically one of the two that are operated by West Valley but draw most of their students from other districts.
But that doesn’t get them out of meeting statewide graduation requirements.
“My sense is we’ve lost more kids out of the alternative programs … than ever before,” Sementi said.
But, he said, the loss hasn’t been as great as educators feared before the state postponed the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL to graduate.
Instead, this year’s seniors who failed the math WASL were required to take extra math classes.
Those who passed the math test – about 67 percent of seniors statewide – will receive a gold-embossed Certificate of Academic Achievement.
Passing a math assessment will be a graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2013, this year’s seventh-graders.
They’ll also have to pass a science test.
That’s going to be a big challenge, Stowell said.
Many elementary teachers have stronger backgrounds in reading and writing than in math, she said.
Potential math or science teachers are often lured from education by high-paying jobs in private industry.
Still unsettled is the form the eventual math test will take. Guthrie, whose fourth-grade drawing showed the WASL with fangs, says the math test as it now stands is worded badly and tests kids on the wrong things.
He earned a B in advanced placement calculus and plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, but he didn’t do as well on the math WASL as he thought he should – not at the 90th percentile, anyway, as with the SAT.
Guthrie, 18, is outspoken about his dislike for the WASL, saying it wastes students’ time and is too expensive for taxpayers.
But he no longer calls it a monster.
“It’s more of a leech,” he said.