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Grads: WASL Daunted Some, Motivated Others

June 16, 2008

By Linda Shaw, Seattle Times

Jun. 16–Rickey Combs still doesn’t think students should have to pass reading and writing on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in order to graduate.

Even though Combs passed those subjects two years ago, when he was a sophomore at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle, and The Seattle Times started chronicling his WASL experiences along with two other members of the Class of 2008.

And even though, as it turned out, Combs didn’t have to pass the math section — which he dreaded — because the state Legislature, faced with the high math failure rate, allowed students to earn their diplomas if they instead passed a full year of math.

Some members of the Class of 2008 — the first class required to pass any part of the WASL to graduate — say the WASL has done some good. Others, such as Combs, aren’t sure what they gained except stress.

“For a while,” Combs said, “the WASL made me feel dumb.”

But that’s all behind them now — the butterflies on test day, the tears after failing scores, the extra studying.

Like the WASL or not, they got through it, and in greater numbers than many had predicted.

Not everyone passed, of course. School districts around Seattle each report at least a dozen students who will fail to graduate this month because they didn’t pass reading and writing on the WASL, or one of the approved alternatives. Others will fall short in math, if they failed the math WASL and don’t pass a full year of math this school year. (Results for math are still being sorted out as teachers score final exams.)

In Seattle, preliminary results show that roughly 180 students — about 7 percent of seniors — met all other graduation requirements except passing reading and writing on the WASL or one of the approved alternatives. In Highline, it’s 27 students. In Mukilteo, roughly 20.

Even in Yakima, where Superintendent Ben Soria was so concerned about how many students would fail that he organized trips to Olympia to plead for more time, the final tally was just 12 to 15.

“The kids rose to the occasion,” he said recently. “I don’t know what else to say. I was just absolutely blown away.”

Count excludes many

The high passage rate must be put in context. It includes only seniors — those students who are still in school and, in many cases, also have enough credits to graduate this month. That’s about 67,000 students statewide. There are roughly another 19,000 to 24,000 students who started high school four years ago but have dropped out or fallen behind in credits. They won’t graduate now for reasons that may include, but aren’t limited to, the WASL.

Many argue that those students should be counted, too, to measure the full impact that the WASL has had on the Class of 2008. It will take until fall to sort that out.

One of the uncounted is Wilber Romero, another of the three students The Times has followed, along with Combs and Mandy Schendel of Renton’s Hazen High School.

Romero started his freshman year at Federal Way High, where he struggled with motivation, skipped classes and failed all parts of the WASL as a sophomore. He went through periods of working hard, only to slip behind again. He transferred to Lincoln High in Tacoma last year but withdrew just after school started last September. The person who answered the phone at his house said Romero isn’t in school anymore.

He’s the kind of student who worries Christine Avery, a middle-school principal in the Edmonds School District. As a teacher, she was gung-ho about the WASL, but she finds herself increasingly concerned about the effect the exam has on many students.

“I worry we’re sending the wrong message … reinforcing in their minds that they aren’t smart,” she said.

For some, no big deal

Schendel’s experience was the opposite of Romero’s. Her WASL worries ended two years ago. She failed math on the eighth-grade WASL and, like Combs, worried she would fail in 10th grade, too. But she passed reading, writing and math on the first try and said she barely gave the WASL another thought. Some who, like Schendel, passed easily, say the WASL is a good motivator for students and schools.

Their views echo the adults who’ve been the WASL’s biggest supporters, such as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson.

“Everyone should be able to do math and read at that level,” Lynnwood High senior David Le said as he waited in line last week to load up his plate for the school’s senior breakfast.

His classmate, Henry Doan, Lynnwood’s student-body president, agreed. “It was sort of needed to bring the educational standard up.”

But Schendel, like Combs, isn’t so sure it’s a good idea. Her concerns are similar to critics such as the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which continues to fight the WASL’s use as a graduation requirement.

“There are so many better ways to show your abilities and what you can do,” Schendel said.

Other students — and adults — say many students need more support sooner to prevent them from failing in the first place.

At Sealth, Victor Facundo, for example, says he wishes he’d been pushed earlier so that he wouldn’t have had to worry that a failing math grade could keep him from getting a diploma.

“All my hard work in all my other classes wouldn’t mean anything,” he said.

Combs took the math WASL two more times after his sophomore year. He came closest as a junior, just as the Legislature was debating whether students in the Class of 2008 (and all the way through 2012) should be required to pass the math section of the WASL to graduate.

He nearly made it, falling short by just a few points. But he was so disappointed that he couldn’t bring himself to make a big effort this year. He concentrated on passing his math class instead.

The fact that he failed bothered him, he said, until he convinced himself it wasn’t a measure of his intelligence.

“The WASL, to me, was a test that didn’t measure all your skills,” he said.

Combs was not the only one sweating it out this year.

So was Sealth classmate Keity Hernandez, who learned just about a week ago that she finally has passed the WASL’s writing section on her fifth try.

She was prepared not to graduate, since she’d not only failed the writing section four times but also did not earn a passing grade on a collection of work she submitted, one of the approved alternatives.

Ruben Rodriguez, a student at Highline High, passed reading this year on his third try. He arrived in the U.S. six years ago, and his teachers had worried that, despite all his hard work, he just hadn’t had time to learn enough English to do well on the WASL.

As graduation day approached, some schools went almost into crisis mode with the students at risk of falling short.

In the Highline School District, for example, staff members called seniors at home every week if their math grade was below a C.

Some school districts allowed some students to participate in graduation ceremonies even if they hadn’t passed the WASL.

Seattle Public Schools, for example, let some in English-language programs participate, as long as they had enough credits and met other criteria.

Federal Way probably went the furthest. For those who hadn’t yet met all requirements for a diploma, Federal Way principals let individual students and their families decide whether or not a senior would “walk” in graduation. That felt, they said, like the humane thing to do.

Lisa Griebel, principal at Federal Way High, thinks the WASL has helped raise standards and that the Class of 2008 is better prepared than any before it. Still, she didn’t want to deny any student the chance to attend graduation if he or she was close. She didn’t want students to feel like failures, she said, just because they need more time to finish.

At her school, she said, about half the families said no diploma, no ceremony. The other half chose to let students participate anyway.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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