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Sunday, November 24, 2002

Letters to the Editor

WASL


Test has to be adequate measure of what kids learn

Hardly a week goes by without a significant article on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test (the latest is "Out of reach -- minority students missing the WASL mark," Nov. 17 Focus).

One of the primary functions of any society is to educate children for the society in which they must function as adults. That society changes and becomes more complex over time and, therefore, the education that children receive must also change.

Today's educational system must educate children for a complex society requiring higher levels of academic skills and performance than ever before. We know that not only is that society going to change but its rate of change is accelerating, so we had better make sure students have the listening and communication skills to continue to educate himself in the future. Once we know where students need to be when they leave school, we have to develop a road map to get them there. And we had better have a way of knowing if we are succeeding along the way so that we can make course corrections.

The WASL provides both the information to know if each educational unit -- school system, school, class, student -- is succeeding. For WASL results to be meaningful, they have to be validated. Does it adequately measure progress against the goals that Washington state has determined to be necessary to have an adequately educated citizenry? The only way to determine this is to have students take the test and have qualified researchers examine the evidence. Until the test is validated, the scores have no meaning.

Those parents who choose not to have their students take the WASL are shortchanging their student and the students downstream for whom the WASL will be a graduation requirement. It is no wonder that 10th-graders are blowing off the WASL if adults see it as meaningless. It is not a question of is the WASL too easy or too hard. It is not a question of if minority students or impoverished students do poorer than the rest of the school population. The only question is, given that the educational goals deemed necessary are valid, does the WASL adequately measure progress toward achieving and ultimately attaining that goal?

Once we know that it does, we will be better able to determine what education strategies and programs are best for preparing students for the complex and tough society in which they will have to live and thrive.

Fred W. May
Redmond

Assessments a roadblock to achieving success

African American, Native American, Asian American, Latino, white (as described in "Out of reach")? This is crazy. Why not African, Native, Asian, Latino and Caucasian. At least this implies we are all Americans, aren't we?

Of particular interest in the article is the Asian population. Why are the WASL exam test scores so high with Asians, who are considered a minority? If the Asian population was evaluated to understand why, couldn't what was learned be applied to other minority groups to improve test scores? As you can see, it is not a simple difference of black versus white, poor versus rich, minority versus majority. The answer lies somewhere else.

Dwayne Jones
Bothell

Much to learn about why some do so well

Regarding news stories about Terry Bergeson's call for changes and increases in funding for WASL, we are asking entirely the wrong question. The question should not be how can we help all students to pass the WASL test but who has enough sense to stop the coming train wreck.

The math content of the 10th-grade WASL corresponds to university track algebra and geometry. My fourth-grader's question about "mode" wasn't even in his math book index. When only one-quarter of students are currently passing all sections, that means the only people who are passing now are those who will already be admitted by four-year universities.

Our state has been tricked into a system that will deny a diploma to any student who has not mastered pre-college curriculum. No number of tries or tinkering around with alternative tests is going to fix the underlying absurdity of expecting everyone to master algebra and critical historical commentary just because the powerful Business Roundtable CEOs think they can control our kids like they do their workers.

It was a century ago when states, including Washington, gave an excruciatingly difficult eighth-grade test to screen out all but fewer than 10 percent to move on to high school. Progressives thought it would be better to enroll as many students as long as possible to make them better workers and citizens, and give them a diploma if they stuck it out for 12 years.

By any international standards, we are already at or above national or international averages as a state. Why require pre-college skills for all when most new jobs still don't require a degree? WASL will deny high school diplomas and ruin the career plans of thousands who don't have the same opportunities as those who walk into school with more skills.

The WASL gives lip service about eliminating race gaps. Yet a test that flunks average middle-class whites eliminates the vast majority of the disadvantaged, with little improvement. Score improvement is a mirage when the WASL folks have changed the passing scores, the difficulty of the test, the test specifications and even the Essential Academic Learning Requirement standards themselves from year to year.

Tying a high-stakes decision such as a diploma to one test score is educational malpractice. Gov. Gary Locke is right; WASL should be cut back, not expanded. Assessments should be measuring sticks, not a roadblock. Spending even more WASL money in this time of a budget deficit is a huge waste that punishes kids who deserve to be lauded for their accomplishments no matter what level, not used as a pawn in a high-stakes political game.

Arthur Hu
Kirkland

Keep 'minority' status out of the equation

I found the Nov. 17 article "Out of reach -- minority students missing the WASL mark" an interesting read. It assuredly sets out some profound findings.

Unfortunately, since it originated from the ivory tower at the UW, some confusion still exists that needs clarification. For example, throughout the article the thesis appears to be that minority students tend to perform less well than Caucasian students. And then, curiously, Asian students are lumped with Caucasian students as doing much better, scholastically, on the whole.

The trouble is, Asians are classed as minorities by most U.S. agencies.

Thus, while the underperforming students are black, native American and Hispanic, you are forced, by definition of "minority," to lump Asians in that group. But Asian students perform very well, as noted by the authors.

The lesson to be learned is to not use the label "minority" when discussing underperforming students.

If you do not do that, then you must revisit the precepts of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their classic work "The Bell Curve." And no one in the ivory tower will dare do that.

Christopher Brown
Seattle

Goal is admirable but totally unrealistic

Is it really a surprise to anyone that the WASL is a too much-too soon approach to educational reform? When my daughter took the fourth-grade test, her teacher told me there were questions on the math portion that most kids wouldn't cover until sixth or seventh grade. A veteran teacher told me that reform is the business of education and that when this one failed, there would be a new one.

She told me not to take it too seriously because by the time it was required that students pass the WASL to graduate, it would be modified, killed, amended or large parts of the student population would be excused from it simply because they could not pass.

Not every car on the road can go from zero to 60 in six seconds. So, can you really "reform" education in a 10-year period? I think the goal is admirable. But it is also idealistic.

Judy Gregerson
Everett

VANCE'S REMARK


E. Washingtonians don't want to go it alone

State GOP Chairman Chris Vance's remark that Seattle is an island of "crazy libertarians" is from a right-wing nut cake calling someone else nuts. It's perfectly reasonable that folks east of the mountains don't want to pay for our traffic nightmares. On the other hand, those folks should stay in Ellensburg or wherever they are, or better yet, secede from the state and foot all their own bills from their dinky tax base.

Why should the people west of the mountains pay for their health care bills, their infrastructure and their nuclear housekeeping?

As for Vance, I've got news for him: Seattle's attitude is not unique. Portland and L.A. are just like Seattle; San Francisco is way more liberal. Not for nothing do the real crazies in the nation's capital call Washington, Oregon and California the "left coast." No changes are going to take place anytime soon.

Clifford J. DeVoy
Tacoma

SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS


Don't let budget cuts have negative effect on learning

Seattle Public Schools' "shortfall" of $34 million would certainly indicate that the district was using substandard accounting practices. Over the summer, the district failed to pass the state audit for the sixth consecutive year. Why didn't the administration and/or the School Board correct the situation the year the district failed to pass the audit?

Superintendent Joseph Olchefske was originally hired as the district's chief financial officer. Did not the new contract elevating him to superintendent make clear he was still responsible for overseeing the financial operations even though he was no longer head of that department?

There has been talk of selling district property and studying use of grant money to partially alleviate the current financial problems. Is anyone checking the regulations regarding the use of grant money? Are there plans to follow the legal procedures as public hearings and permission from the voters for the sale of school real estate?

An independent audit has been mentioned. That's an excellent idea. Wouldn't allowing Olchefske to choose the independent auditors bring to mind the Enron/Arthur Andersen debacle?

This is not to imply that district personnel have been guilty of misappropriation or graft. It is meant to imply that someone has been inefficient or grossly negligent, a fact those guilty of these shortcomings would certainly prefer to have buried.

We understand the district students have shown improvement in academics, but what steps are being taken to assure coming budget cuts will not slow or reverse this upward trend?

Suggestions should include cutting central administration to the bone, doing without consultants, not sending participants to national conferences, forgoing board and staff retreats, gutting or eliminating out-of-district travel. Five or 10 years down the road, no one will recall that Seattle cut expenditures in these areas for a year or two.

Norma Olmstead
Retired teacher
Bremerton

STATE FINANCES


Maybe it's time to put sales tax back on food

With Referendum 51 defeated, we are still in a financial quagmire. The dimension of the problem is, at a minimum, $2 billion immediate financial deficit and an overall projected project deficit of $40 billion (primarily for road construction). One of the solutions is to implement a state income tax.

I suggest that there is a more direct, immediate and efficient method for getting new revenues into the state coffers without additional expenses. The introduction of a food sales tax would:

Produce an immediate cash flow.

Not require any increase in personnel.

Evenly distribute the pain and not single out a specific class of taxpayer.

Be adjusted to accommodate actual needs (anywhere between zero and eight percent).

Be stopped when no longer needed.

Don't forget we did this in the early '80's and it worked. This tax can be imposed immediately by the Legislature without any Tim Eyman interference.

Roger Hintz
Prosser

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