Will WASL Sink Bergeson?

The Superintendent’s Democratic challenger is betting on it.

A couple weekends ago at its Spokane convention, the state Democratic Party endorsed Randy Dorn for Superintendent of Public Instruction, giving a shot in the arm to a candidate who's emerging as the most serious challenger to Terry Bergeson in her three-term career. Not only is Dorn picking up endorsements and raising money— $28,000 in the month-and-a-half since he announced his candidacy, nearly a third of what Bergeson had collected by the end of May—but he is riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the incumbent. Forty-five teachers' unions around the state, including Seattle's, recently voted to express no confidence (or something similar) in Bergeson, according to Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist. A big reason why, Lindquist says, is Bergeson's "overemphasis on high-stakes testing." In her 12 years in office, Bergeson has been the face of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Teachers, parents, and students have long expressed criticism of the pressure-laden WASL and the way the school system has come to revolve around it. One-time Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith Billings even vied for her old seat four years ago on an anti-WASL platform. She lost. "This year, it's different," insists Dorn, contending that the backlash has grown stronger. Dorn actually helped create the WASL in the early '90s, when as a state representative chairing the House Education Committee he co-sponsored the bill that brought it into being. But now, serving as the executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington, which represents classified staff, he says, "We've gotten off track." The WASL eats up too much instruction time, he adds. And as evidenced by students' abysmal scores, he says, "WASL math has been a disaster." "People are frustrated," allows Bergeson, who attributes much of the problem to federal requirements that force the state to test students almost every year, instead of in just fourth, seventh, and 10th grades, as used to be the case. She says she hopes to see a new U.S. President rewrite the rules. In the meantime, she says, in response to legislative action during the most recent session, her office is shortening the test. And passing the math portion is no longer a high-school graduation requirement. This year's election will likely determine whether voters think those changes go far enough.

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