Sophomores who take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning this week will be the first who must pass the state exam to graduate.
The long-awaited testing has caused anxiety across the state, as hopes that Washington will enter a new era of educational accountability are balanced by fears of turmoil if large numbers of 10th graders are unable to pass the tests.
The students, members of the class of 2008, will get more chances to meet the requirement. State law allows up to five attempts on each test section: reading, writing, and mathematics. Students can pass them separately.
A science exam is being pilot-tested this year and will be added to the graduation requirement for the class of 2010.
Washington is one of 24 states that require high school students to pass an exit exam or end-of-course exams to graduate.
“The states have had a lot of difficulty holding to these [high-stakes testing] policies,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a public education research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that has studied graduation-exam requirements.
Among the states in that camp is Arizona, “where they’ve edged up to enforcing the policy and backed away from it repeatedly,” he said.
In another camp, he added, are Massachusetts and California. “Massachusetts adopted a high standard and faced all sorts of turmoil, but they held fast to it and are thinking of increasing it even more.”
In California, “where they’re facing the first year [of a high-stakes test,] they are holding to it,” Mr. Jennings said, referring to the recent vote by the state board of education not to soften the testing requirement.
“Washington State wouldn’t be in that camp,” he suggested.
For 10th graders who fail this week’s test, state-financed summer-study programs will be offered by school districts across the state; any eligible student can register. The 10th graders’ testing schedule for reading and writing was moved up to March so that the results would be returned in June, in time to include the study sessions in students’ summer plans.
But concerns over the high stakes of the exam, known as the WASL, have led to several moves that some say weaken the exit-exam requirement. For example, a new law lets students who fail the test qualify for graduation by three alternative methods.
The first method looks at a student’s grade point average in the subject of the section of the test the student failed, and compares it with the averages of comparable students at his or her high school who took the same sequence of courses.
The second method, for writing only, requires the school to assemble a portfolio of the student’s writing. The quality of the writing, which is judged by a state-trained teacher from outside the school, must at least meet the minimum quality of the sample that would be required by the WASL.
The third method, for math only, requires earning a score on the math section of the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT that is equivalent to passing that section of the state exam. The state board of education will decide on the minimum qualifying scores by Dec. 1.
The exit-exam alternatives, which Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, signed into law in March, is similar to a measure in Massachusetts and was recommended by Washington education officials. The WASL was first administered in 1996.
The alternatives to the WASL may be used only after a student fails twice on a section of the assessment.
Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of public instruction, says the alternative methods are not an easy pass. “They’d have to do more work, for sure, to do a collection of evidence,” she said. “They might as well pass the test.”
Mothers Against WASL
A small band of critics says the testing program is heading for a crisis if many in the class of 2008 continue falling short.
“A train wreck is coming,” said Juanita Doyon, the director of the Parent Empowerment Network and the organizer of Mothers Against WASL. In 2004, Ms. Doyon was a candidate for state schools superintendent, but was knocked out of the race by a poor showing in the nonpartisan primary election.
Former Gov. Booth Gardiner, a Democrat, weighed in recently by urging that the tests be uncoupled from high school graduation.
To calm fears, Ms. Bergeson sent a bulletin to schools with a pep talk for the 10th graders.
The message, which some teachers sent home with students, underscored the importance of the test, and said “rest up, take it seriously, but don’t have a heart attack, because if you don’t meet the standard, you will have other opportunities if you fail,” Ms. Bergeson said in an interview.
Without doubt, the state schools chief is the strongest force behind the testing program. It was a centerpiece of her re-election campaign in 2004, even as other political candidates stepped away from the test as too controversial.
That Ms. Bergeson, a former president of the state affiliate of the National Education Association, won re-election handily over Judith Billings, a former state superintendent who was the union’s choice and opposed the WASL as her main issue, has strengthened her standing among some conservatives in the state, said Paul W. Guppy, the research director of the Washington Policy Center. His group is an independent, conservative-leaning think tank in Seattle.
“People who are tough on having education standards either like her or they have been kind of muted in their criticism,” Mr. Guppy said. “She definitely has stood up for the WASL.”