Standing in front of McClure Middle School on Queen Anne, a sprightly presence in a jaunty black skirt, Judith Billings announced last month that she was making a run for her old job as state superintendent of public instruction. It was a triumph of one kind just to be back in the game. Eight years ago, while nearing the end of her second term as superintendent, Billings announced that she had contracted AIDS from artificial insemination she had done years back. Thanks to breakthrough drugs called protease inhibitors developed since, the 64-year-old Billings says her health has improved dramatically. Her telltale count of T cells, linked to the immune system, has gone from a crisis-level 200 to a robust 800 to 1,000, and she has been traveling all over the world as an AIDS activist, most recently to Thailand the week before her announcement for the International AIDS Conference.
She is returning to education politics with a bang. "I'm here to broaden the discussion," she declared as she made her announcement. She was speaking at that moment about the issue that is now consuming almost every educator in the state: the high-stakes test called the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, commonly known as the WASL. Beginning in 2008, students will have to pass the WASL to graduate from high school—a standard that, at the current level of results, would deny two-thirds of seniors their diploma. The search for a way out has been inevitable, and now Billings is suggesting one. "As far as making it a graduation requirement," she says of the WASL, "I think right now that's a mistake."
Billings has other parts to her platform, but the idea of dropping the WASL as a graduation requirement is her bombshell. It would derail, or at least seriously alter, the push toward state standards that has been the centerpiece of education policy here since 1993, when the state Legislature passed a landmark education reform bill. The notion raises the possibility that education reform could go the way of health care reform in this state—a historic initiative abandoned before it was ever implemented.
It's a possibility made more real by the fact that Billings' candidacy is tapping into a wider discontent with the WASL. Until the former superintendent stepped into the race, Spanaway mother Juanita Doyon, founder of Mothers Against the WASL, seemed like the most credible challenger to incumbent Terry Bergeson. The Washington Education Association, representing the state's teachers, pointedly refused to endorse Bergeson, a former union president, at its spring convention. Though Bergeson's acquiescence with charter school legislation was generally assumed to be the most important reason, WEA President Charles Hasse says "a level of frustration that's hard to overstate" with the WASL was talked about more at the convention. More surprisingly, a number of the original sponsors of education reform bill 1209 now express misgivings about the way it has played out through the WASL. They include the former chairs of the state House and Senate K-12 education committees, respectively Randy Dorn, now executive director of Public School Employees of Washington, representing classified employees, and Dwight Pelz, now a King County Council member, both of whom question the notion of one all-important test.
So although it's true that the Legislature rather than the superintendent has authority over whether the WASL will be a graduation test, this election has the potential of setting a new political climate for education.
It is also a match up between two longtime rivals. In 1992, Bergeson challenged then-Superintendent Billings, claiming that the superintendent's office needed stronger leadership. Bergeson lost. But the following year's education reform bill created a new commission to come up with specific standards, much to the dismay of Billings, who wanted authority over the task. And Bergeson became the commission's executive director, thus making her "the head person from day one" on the WASL, as Dorn puts it. They are women with different styles. Billings is more of a charmer and a delegator, while the 61-year-old Bergeson is known for her drive and tirelessness.
Billings served as superintendent from 1989 until 1997. She did a competent job, by all accounts, letting her staff know that the needs of poor and minority kids were paramount to her. Ironically, the most remarkable thing that happened on her watch was the education reform bill, which she largely supported. "I remember walking out of the Senate with her after the bill passed," says Pelz. "She was excited."
Now, she describes the reform effort as having gotten off track. Echoing a common complaint, she says testing has become an obsession. "It's almost become an end in itself to have a high test score."
She claims, moreover, that the WASL was never intended to be a graduation test for individual students; rather it was meant as a "systems check." As Bergeson points out, however, bill 1209 specifically states that successful completion of the to-be-created high school assessment will be required for graduation. Billings concedes the point when questioned, but adds that the original idea was to have a more varied assessment than a single test—including portfolios of classroom work. Dorn agrees. "All these things we talked about have gone by the wayside," he says.
Billings also points to another piece of language in 1209. It mandates that the assessment system be determined "sufficiently reliable and valid" before making it an arbiter of graduation. Billings asks: "If we have somewhere between a third and half of our students not able to perform at proficiency level [on the WASL], is that valid and reliable?"
What she's really asking, and what a lot of others are asking too, is whether the WASL is too hard. "What we need to do is to be very realistic about what kids need to learn," she says. Kids, she stresses, of average ability, who may or may not go to college. To the extent that she believes in a statewide test, she thinks that it should measure "basic skills."
There has been some research that suggests that the WASL is among the hardest state tests in the country. The Princeton Review, a New York company that publishes authoritative educational research, put the WASL (along with a couple other state tests) in fifth place in terms of toughness, using the middle-school math assessment as a gauge.
Lately, Superintendent Bergeson herself has been sending out mixed messages on the subject of standards. "We're at a tipping point," she says, "because there is too much obsession with test scores," a point she made in her last State of Education address. She emphasizes the role of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in ratcheting up the pressure. Under it, states are penalized financially if their schools don't meet a specified "adequate yearly progress" on their own tests. She asserts that she has been aggressively lobbying with the feds for leeway in the rules, and that the need to continue to do so is "part of the reason I'm running."
Bergeson also seems to acknowledge that there is a valid question about whether the WASL is too hard. Asks Bergeson, "What are the skills that kids need to know?" She doesn't answer that question, though, beyond alluding vaguely to "some things that need to be fixed" about the WASL.
She is absolutely clear, however, that she is sticking by the test and its role as an exit exam. "I believe in the WASL," she says. "We've stayed the course for 10 years. This is not the time to drop this and go in a new direction."
In fact, she maintains, the WASL has already had a dramatic impact in accelerating student achievement in this state. As measured by national test scores, she says, "We've gone from the middle of the pack in the nation to the top tier. We're now in the top five or six states in the nation on any indicator."
This would be remarkable if true, but the claim greatly overstates the case. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard for measuring states against each other, Washington last scored particularly well in fourth-grade math, ranking among the top 13 states. In eighth-grade math, and fourth- and eighth-grade reading, however, Washington placement ranged from among the top 22 to 29 states—pretty average.
Still, the need to pass the WASL has unquestionably lit a fire under schools, and there are some striking individual success stories.
In any case, the truth is that even under Bergeson's supervision, the state is making some major changes to the WASL; you might even call it backpedaling. The Legislature in its last session gave high-school students a new opportunity to take up to four retakes of the WASL. After the second try, students will be allowed to opt for an alternative assessment, probably some kind of portfolio option. (Billings wants to allow students to opt for an alternative at the start.) More significantly, the state's Academic Achievement and Accountability, or A+, Commission, which is charged with reviewing policy around the WASL, is currently reconsidering what level of performance should be demanded for graduation. Currently, students are expected to become "proficient," the third highest of four levels. The commission might recommend to the Legislature that the standard be moved to "basic," level two. At current performance levels, the change would mean that about 57 percent of students could graduate, rather than 34 percent.
Chris Thompson, executive director of the A+ Commission, notes that the original committees that set performance standards for the WASL were instructed to determine what a "hardworking, well-taught student" could be expected to know. They never discussed what was reasonable as a graduation requirement. This year's election for superintendent of public instruction is bringing that discussion out in the open.