WASL still an uphill fight

OLYMPIA – All state schools and districts statistically are destined to “fail” under the current federal No Child Left Behind laws, State Superintendent Randy Dorn said Friday. And the laws are unfair to schools and districts that show improvement, he said.

“Looking at the data, statistically speaking, literally every school in our state will eventually be ‘in improvement’ or in a failing status,” Dorn said.

Dorn made his statements as the state released the results from the 2008-09 Washington Assessment of Student Learning, known as the WASL.

Scores at some Thurston County schools helped to illustrate his point.

Each school’s success on the WASL determines its Adequate Yearly Progress, or “AYP,” which is a measure under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A certain minimum percentage of students must pass the tests, otherwise schools and districts are subject to being listed as having failed to meet progress expectations. Schools that fail to make AYP in the same category two years in a row are listed as “in improvement.”

Every three years, that minimum percentage rises, because the federal law’s goal is to have 100 percent of students meet state standards by 2014.

Preliminary results from the 2008-09 year show that 1,073 schools statewide are in “improvement” status.

That’s nearly double the number of schools in the previous year. Schools that are “in improvement,” and receive federal money because of a low-income population are subject to sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law. Those sanctions include providing transportation to families who choose to attend another school in the district.

Local officials expressed frustration over the Adequate Yearly Progress reporting system, which they say masks academic gains at some of the schools.

In the Olympia District, Hansen and L.P. Brown elementary schools are both listed in as in “improvement” status.

“If you look at both those schools, their WASL scores are very high,” said district spokesman Peter Rex. “In fact, Hansen had extraordinary gains in some areas. So it says more about the complexity of the law than it does about the staff or students.”

Rex said that Hansen teachers improved the number of special education students who tested at the state standards last year. However, too many unexcused absences among students in that subgroup stopped the school’s chance of escaping the “in improvement” status.

“It can make it seem like special education students aren’t meeting standard in reading, when really they had too many absences,” Rex said.

Suzanne Hall, the Tumwater district’s executive director of student learning, said that Peter G. Elementary School will be listed as “in improvement” for the second year in a row despite teachers significantly increasing the number of special education students who made standard.

“They moved 10 more kids on ‘level.’ They missed AYP by one student. That’s the part that is really difficult: Here you had a staff that put an extreme amount of effort toward these kids. They had overall success with the group by moving 10 kids” to standard.

Courtney Schrieve, spokeswoman of the North Thurston District, said that parents who receive letters advising them of the school’s “in improvement” status, should not overlook the schools’ significant gains.

The district will send those letters home to parents of children attending Lydia Hawk and Pleasant Glade elementary schools, but both schools saw increases in passing math test scores.

Just over 67 percent of fifth graders at Pleasant Glade passed the math test, an increase of 29 percentage points. Lydia Hawk’s third-graders and fifth-graders also saw gains in math of more than 13 percentage points.

“They have both had some big jumps in different areas,” Schrieve said. “We would encourage parents talk to their schools and find out some of those gains that they are making.”

“Even though they are ‘in improvement,’ they are places where they’ve had these jumps where we can say, ‘What are they doing there and can what have they done be done in other schools?’ ”

The test for 2008-09 was the final year of the state assessments under the WASL name and format, which involved a multi-day tests in different subjects across grades 3-8 and grade 10. Passing the reading, writing and math tests in grade 10 is a requirement for public school graduation.

Dorn plans to replace the WASL with shorter tests that will measure the same standards, except for in high school math, where students will take end-of-course exams.

Those changes will roll out over the next few years.

Venice Buhain: 360-754-5445