Over the past three weeks, fourth-, seventh-, and 10th-graders all over the state have been spending days at their desks poring over the grueling, high-stakes tests known as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. If their performance is anything like last year's, Washington would seem to be headed for a major crisis that could have us one day denying diplomas to almost two-thirds of high-school seniors. By 2008, high-school students will be required to pass all four sections of the 10th-grade WASLreading, math, writing, and listening in order to graduate. That graduating class takes the test for the first time in just three years. Currently, a dismal 63 percent of the state's 10th-graders are failing the math portion of the test. Among African Americans, a shocking 87 percent are failing math. In the city of Seattle, the failing rate among African Americans is an overwhelmingly bleak 92 percent.
It seems impossible that the state is going to deny a diploma to virtually the entire African-American student population, as well as to large numbers of others. Surely state leaders are going to fix this, whether by fiddling with the test or ditching the requirement. That's what's happened in other states.
"When states are confronted with results that are often politically unpalatable, they've had to take a step back and ask whether it's something they really want to do," says Brian Stecher, an education researcher at the RAND think tank who has studied high-stakes testing across the country. He points to his own state of California, where a furious debate has broken out over the 10th-grade exit exam that next year's seniors will have to have passed to graduate. Fewer than half have done so previously, before it was required. Critics argue that students haven't been adequately prepared by the curriculum. Students have been holding protests. The Los Angeles school board has opposed the test. And the California Board of Education is considering changing it or postponing the requirement of passing it.
Arizona already has postponed its requirement, which was going to kick in last year until education leaders took a hard look at the numbers: 88 percent of 10th graders were failing the exit exam. "The new superintendent wants it back in, but he says he wants to drop the 'cut score,'" says Arizona State University education professor David Berliner. The cut score is the number of questions students need to answer correctly to pass. Berliner says manipulating the cut score is a central way states have dealt with this predicament.
Texas, for instance. The state that gave President Bush a reputation as an education reformer was using a test widely thought to set a low bar. Texas introduced a tougher test this year, which certain grades of students must pass in order to proceed to the next grade or to graduate. But the state lowered the cut score after seeing a high failure rate on practice tests.
IT SHOULD COME as no surprise, then, that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in this state is quietly planning to revisit the cut scores for the WASLs. And during the special session that got under way this week in Olympia, the Legislature was to consider two bills that would change the rules. Greg Hall, the head of assessment for OSPI, and Gov. Gary Locke's K-12 education adviser, Judy Hartmann, say that such refinement is to be expected. But Hall concedes that one reason for the re-examination is that the educators who set the cut score were never asked what kids should be expected to know in order to graduate. Instead, they were asked: "How well should hardworking, well-taught 10th-graders perform?" That question might have elicited a higher standard than is reasonable.
AND IF YOU LISTEN to state Rep. David Quall, D-Mount Vernon, you realize that there's still profound difference in the way state leaders look at graduation standards. Quall is chair of the House's education committee and, therefore, a key player in what happens to the WASL. While the standard rhetoric holds that the WASL is a measurement of high-level skills needed by students to compete in the "21st century," Quall talks about making sure graduates have "basic skills."
"We don't want to have an unfair standard that's unreachable," says Quall, a retired high-school teacher. As he goes on to consider the possibility that Washington's test might be harder than those of many other states and the implications for large numbers of minorities that face being held back, Quall admits to getting "steamed up. I think we do need a reality check."
The bills before the Legislature, which Quall helped write, have the potential to make a dramatic difference. The standard could be lowered, and the bills would add opportunities to retake the test. Now, students take each WASL once. In contrast, Massachusetts students can retake their exit exam as many as four times before the end of their senior year, which is the only reason 90 percent of all seniors and 75 percent of African-American seniors there can graduate this year. The first time the graduating class took the test, only 68 percent of students and 37 percent of African Americans passed. (Massachusetts also came up with $130 million to help failing students, whereas deficit-ridden Washington is cutting its education budget.)
PROPOSED LEGISLATION also would allow some kids to bypass the WASL by having the OSPI design an alternative means of measurementlikely some kind of creative portfoliofor students who test poorly. (How the state would decide who falls into this category is unclear, but it might simply apply to students who perform poorly on the WASL.) And for special-education students and those for whom English is a second language, as well as those judged to have "cognitive difficulties," the legislation would have the OSPI reconsider whether it's appropriate to hold them to the same standards. The bills also would drop the listening portion of the exit exam.
If the changes go through, more kids are likely to graduate. In that sense, the state might solve the crisis. But it's more interesting to contemplate another way out, the promise of which can be seen at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle's Central Area.
Thurgood Marshall is the kind of school that should fear the WASL, given the typical racial gap in performance. This school year, 95 percent of its students are minorities 62 percent African American. Nearly 70 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunches. When principal Ben Wright walked in the door four years ago, not one student was passing the math portion of the fourth-grade WASL. Last year, the number jumped to an astounding 45 percent. During Wright's tenure, the percentages on the other WASL portions climbed impressively as well, from the teens, 20s, and 30s to the 50s and 60s. The jump in scores, particularly in math, are so unusual that it's natural to suspect some ancillary cause, perhaps a demographic change. But the demographics have remained roughly constant, aside from a modest 10 percent drop in the percentage of African Americans over four years.
Wright is a 53-year-old African American who is a relatively new principal but has served in the district since 1983. He has overhauled the school from top to bottom, starting with the staff.
OF A STAFF OF 51, "There are five people working here today that were here when I started," says Wright, a large man with a shaved head. He felt many were burned out or ineffectual, including custodians and cafeteria workers who, in his estimation, weren't creating a nurturing environment. A few he asked to leave because of what he calls their "different belief systemthey didn't believe that every kid in here could learn." One was prone to complaining about "those kids": a definite no-no in Wright's administration.
Wright has high expectations for teachers, and the teachers in turn seem to have high expectations for kids, whatever their background. One teacher, Shari Powell, writes at the bottom of every homework assignment: "No late work accepted. No excuses. No exceptions."
There have been many other changes, as well. Under Wright, the school has a longer school day and school year, separate classes for boys and girls, a requirement they wear uniforms, and, most pertinent to the jump in math scores, a new math program that taps some of the leading thinkers and teachers in the city. Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the program brings graduate students studying applied math at the University of Washington and teachers at the University Child Development School (UCDS), a premier private school, to Thurgood Marshall every week. They help teach a new curriculum that, like the WASL, veers away from pencil-and-paper formulas and stresses creativity and analysis.
MATH CLASS AT Thurgood Marshall is something to behold, at least in Powell's class of first- and second-grade girls. "Is everybody ready for math?" begins Powell, an energetic woman with cornrows pulled back into a pony tail. "Yeeesss!" they shout back in unison. After having them close their eyes and pick a word problem, she shouts, "Go!" The girls race to several boxes of "manipulatives"shapes of different sizes and colors that they use to solve problems. They also take crayons and colored paper to draw pictures and symbols to work out the problemsbut no pencil and paper, no formulas. The girls are absorbed by their task, and when they are finished, nearly the entire class wants to come to the front to explain their "strategy" for arriving at an answer.
"It's spectacular," says Melissa Masters, the assistant head at UCDS who saw something similar when visiting a class recently. "You have the kids feeling great about math."
Can Thurgood Marshall raise its WASL scores even more, to have most students passing? Can other schools, including high schools, replicate that success? It's too soon to tell. UCDS and UW are bringing their math program to Leschi Elementary and the African American Academy next year, but raising the $25,000 or so needed to buy the "manipulatives" is a problem. Still, Thurgood Marshall's success offers a ray of hope and, perhaps indirectly, an argument for tough standards. Whatever happens to the WASL as the stakes become real, it's a good bet that without the pressure it has wrought, Thurgood Marshall students would still be written off as unable to learn.