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Friday, December 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Former governor now opposing WASL test for diploma

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the second inning of a grandson's baseball game last spring, former Gov. Booth Gardner struck up a conversation that led him to change his mind about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as a graduation requirement.

The mother sitting next to him, he said, was a high-school teacher who talked about her concerns about the WASL — the state exam that, starting in 2008, students must pass to earn a diploma. Soon, he said, most of the other parents within earshot joined in.

For five full innings, he listened as they railed against placing such high stakes on a single test.

"The strength of their feelings surprised me," Gardner said.

He said he left the game resolved to explore their concerns and worried that the education-reform effort he'd championed a dozen years ago had become too narrowly focused on one exam. And, he said, he realized that if the passing rate didn't go up — just 42 percent passed last spring — parents could revolt.

He's since become a leading voice for lowering the stakes for the 10th-grade WASL by allowing students to choose from a number of ways to show they have the skills and knowledge they need to graduate.

Possible alternatives to the WASL


Former Gov. Booth Gardner's proposal: Gardner hasn't finalized his recommendations but has talked about letting students choose from a number of options, including the WASL, to show they have the necessary knowledge and skills to graduate. He's mentioned a portfolio of student work, for example, or looking to see if other tests could substitute for parts of the WASL if they cover the same content. Gardner wants students to be able to choose options other than the WASL without taking it first.

Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction: Under a law passed in 2004, OSPI is working on alternatives that would be available to students if they fail the WASL twice. Some of the details are still under discussion, but OSPI is looking closely at two options: One would allow students to pass if they earn the same grades in key courses as six other students in their school who pass the exam. The other would allow students to submit a collection of work for a state panel to review.

Washington Education Association: The board of the state's largest teachers union has proposed a weighted model in which a number of factors would each receive a different, yet-to-be-determined number of points. Factors could include grades in core classes, a senior project and the WASL. Grades would get the most weight, and failing the WASL would not keep a student from graduating. The WEA, however, stresses that this is a work in progress.

"I was wrong," he said of his views back in the 1990s. "I'm willing to admit I was wrong. I was naive. I was new to the subject, and time has shown me there's a better way."

He's one of the sponsors of a conference on Saturday where an estimated 80 people will, among other things, discuss what alternatives to the WASL might look like. The other groups involved — the Washington State PTA, the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, the Minority Executive Directors Coalition and the Tulalip Tribes — are part of a growing push to change the course of the state's education-reform effort, especially as 2008 approaches.

"The recent scores prove that there is no way that a single measure can really measure the different learning styles and different skills that a lot of these students have," said Uriel Iniguez, executive director of the Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

"We need to step back and say, 'What is our destination?' " said Jean Carpenter, the PTA's executive director. "It's that our kids have the skills and knowledge they need. And is this test really showing that? Our answer is no."

The Seattle School Board and the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, also have voiced opposition to the WASL as a graduation requirement.

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson, in her recent state-of-education address, said the state will let students down if it backs off requiring most of them to pass the test. And the Washington State Association of School Directors has turned down requests that it lobby to remove the tie between the WASL and graduation.

Some find Gardner's change of heart surprising, or confusing.

"He was the person who made it clear that all kids, not some kids, needed to be expected to learn," said Stephen Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group that has been involved in the education-reform effort since the beginning.

"The WASL, like it or not, is the only reliable and valid measure of our state standards that currently exists."

But those who agree with Gardner welcome the clout he wields as a respected Democrat and two-term governor who helped launch education changes at the end of his second term in 1992. Gardner, 69, has remained active in public policy, serving four years as a U.S. trade delegate, as well as working as an independent consultant.

"He's been instrumental because he can attract people to the table that others can't," said the PTA's Carpenter.

Support for alternatives

There is little, if any, disagreement that students need some alternatives to the WASL — in part because some students just aren't good at paper-and-pencil tests. The state Legislature has already voted to allow alternatives, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is working on recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the coming session.

The debate is over timing.

As it stands now, students must fail the WASL twice before they can opt for alternatives.

Gardner thinks it's important for students to have alternatives from the outset, and says he's convinced the alternatives can be as valid and rigorous as the WASL.

"It's not fair to the child that they should have to fail to go forward," he said.

But others, including Bergeson, think students should take the WASL first because it's now the best objective measure of what they've learned.

The WASL has been judged to be valid and reliable by a national panel of experts, said Mullin, of the Washington Roundtable. The same cannot yet be said of any alternative, he said.

"Students will have five opportunities to take the WASL," he said. "The Legislature has appropriated money for remediation and is likely to approve significantly more money for remediation next session." He added that schools are ramping up efforts to make sure kids are better educated and scores are up.

"To remove the incentive for improvement in the year when we're likely to see the largest gain seems, to me, confusing."

The Washington Roundtable was among the groups that, along with OSPI, stopped attending a series of meetings that Gardner convened, starting in June.

"We decided that it didn't feel like an effort to truly negotiate a package, it was part of an overall political strategy to undermine education reform," Mullin said.

Gardner, however, says he wants to maintain high standards that are at the heart of education changes. He just doesn't think that "a single test should measure all that matters in a student's education."

He doesn't plan to recommend that alternatives be in place this coming spring, when the class of 2008 is scheduled to take the 10th-grade WASL for the first time. Instead, he envisions that alternatives would be phased in over time.

And he's still working on what alternatives he will propose. He's got some ideas — a portfolio of student work, for example. Or looking at other tests, such as Advanced Placement tests or the test students must take to gain certification as automobile mechanics, to see if those could substitute for at least part of the WASL.

Among final goals

He says that changing the course that the education-reform effort has taken is one of a few goals he wants to accomplish while he can. Gardner has Parkinson's disease, which has slowed him down considerably.

He says he's shared his ideas with Gov. Christine Gregoire, who considers him a mentor, but he decided against asking her to join forces with him.

"Her job should be to critique it along with everybody else," he said.

Gregoire's office said the governor wants to hear what he has to say. "She certainly has a great deal of respect for Booth," spokeswoman Althea Cawley-Murphree said. "She'll take his ideas very seriously."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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