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Washington Test Data Rekindle Concerns Over Graduation Test

By Catherine Gewertz — June 20, 2006 3 min read

The first high school class that must pass an exit exam to graduate in Washington state has produced mixed results on its initial round of required tests, renewing debate about high-stakes testing there and raising interest in the support being offered to struggling students.

Eighty-six percent of the approximately 71,000 students tested this spring passed reading, and 84 percent passed the writing portion, on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. But only 54 percent passed the math portion. Students are permitted four more attempts to pass. (“Washington Readies for High School Exit Exam,” April 19, 2006.)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson welcomed the progress indicated by the language arts results—9 percentage points in reading and 13 percentage points in writing over the 2005 scores. But she acknowledged that much remains to be done in mathematics. Fifty-one percent of student passed that test in 2005.

“I don’t have any brilliant schemes today,” she said at a June 8 news conference announcing the results, according to The Seattle Times. “But I clearly know we have a challenge.”

What will remain unknown until at least August is what portion of the class of 2008 passed all three tests, which they must do to graduate. Last year, only 42.3 percent of those tested passed all three, raising worries about how much remediation might be required once passage was mandated for graduation.

The exam results sparked another round of discussion of the WASL.

Charles Hasse, the president of the 80,000-member Washington Education Association, said the union considers it “morally and politically untenable” to base graduation on a high-stakes test. The National Education Association affiliate would rather see the WASL considered alongside other factors, such as a student’s grades and teachers’ professional judgment, in considering whether students deserve diplomas.

Marc Frazer, the vice president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group in the state that supports the WASL, said the test was a sobering gauge of how far students still must go to be competitive in college and jobs.

“It does students no favor to graduate them without the skills they need for college and work,” he said.

Earlier Results

Cognizant that this year’s sophomores would have to pass all three tests, Washington legislators built in additional requirements and support.

The lawmakers in 2005 required education officials to find a way to return individual test results earlier in 2006 so students and their families would have enough time to plan for summer school, WASL retakes, and fall courses, said Kim Schmanke a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

The reading and writing tests, which take longer to score than the math exams, were moved back to March, three weeks earlier than usual, and the results were delivered in mid-June rather than the usual mid-August, Ms. Schmanke said.

This year, the legislature provided $28 million for summer and school-year remedial programs, which students who failed one or more of the tests can use in any of Washington’s 296 school districts, not only their home districts, Ms. Schmanke said.

Starting this fall, the state will offer alternative ways of showing proficiency to students having trouble passing the WASL. The students may attempt to show proficiency through a collection of their work, or by demonstrating that they earned grades comparable to those of students who passed the WASL in the pertinent subject areas.

In math only, they may prove mastery with strong scores on such tests as the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam.

In addition to passing the three WASL tests, students must complete a culminating project, design a plan for their high school and postsecondary years, and satisfy all course requirements to graduate.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Washington Test Data Rekindle Concerns Over Graduation Test

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