It’s crunch time for the Class of 2008.
After years of test prep and legislative wrangling, new state graduation requirements are going live, starting with this year’s high school seniors.
Most are on track to rise to the new standards – passing sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, completing a senior project, creating a post-graduation plan and earning course credits.
But thousands of South Sound seniors are struggling to meet the requirements, according to a News Tribune survey of area school districts. And students, parents and educators alike are puzzling over a tangle of alternatives, exceptions and updates to the new rules.
Educators say they aren’t panicked, but schools are mobilizing as never before to target teens most in danger of falling short.
“It’s a challenge for the system,” said Michael Power, a Tacoma School District assistant superintendent, “and certainly it’s a challenge for individual students.”
South Sound schools are adding math classes to accommodate seniors and juniors who failed the math portion of the WASL and must keep studying the subject. They’re offering even more reading and writing intervention classes and tutoring during and after school.
They’re holding periodic “advisory” sessions where all students meet with teachers to work on their required culminating project.
Sarita Camacho, a senior at Washington High School in the Franklin Pierce School District in Parkland, appreciates the help.
Though she holds a 3.8 grade-point average, she didn’t pass the WASL math test in 10th grade. While classmates began performing community service and amassing class work samples for their culminating projects a couple of years ago, Camacho is just starting hers, after living in Guam last school year.
She’s taking a math class specially designed to fulfill the math requirement. She’s working with her school counselor to complete a job shadow, volunteer hours and a portfolio of her best class work for her culminating project.
“I’m most worried about my portfolio,” said the petite 16-year-old, wearing her crisp, navy blue Air Force Junior ROTC shirt and matching necktie tabs. “It’s really stressful.”
She hopes to become a heart surgeon in the Air Force. But that plan can’t take off unless she graduates.
MAKING IT MATTER
The beefed-up requirements are the state’s attempt to ensure that a diploma means graduates really are prepared to enter college, vocational training or the work force. Prospective graduates must:
• Pass reading and writing on the 10th-grade WASL or complete a state-approved alternative.
• Pass the math WASL, or failing that, keep studying and passing math courses in their junior and senior year. The Legislature delayed a requirement to pass the math test until 2013, but imposed the rule to keep earning math credits and to reattempt the math WASL each year.
• Complete a “culminating project” that demonstrates creativity, analysis and problem-solving skills or explores a topic of interest.
• Create an individual plan for what they expect to do beyond high school.
• Earn the number of course credits required by the state and their school district, the traditional route to graduation.
“We’ve probably graduated kids with credits (only) for about 100 years,” said Tacoma graduation coordinator Kimberly Meller. Now the state is saying students must do these things before earning a diploma. “It’s an immense shift for students, for parents, for everyone in the community.”
WHO WILL GRADUATE?
By last spring, the Class of 2008 had had three chances to pass the 10th-grade WASL, which most students first attempt as sophomores.
As of last spring, nearly 85 percent of the state’s 78,500 Class of ’08 students had passed the reading section or an alternative, according to statistics from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office. About the same percentage had met the writing standard.
But far fewer – about 60 percent – had passed the math WASL or an alternative.
A News Tribune survey gives an updated glimpse into local teens’ progress since the August test retakes. According to the 19 districts that responded:
• In reading, less than 12 percent of Class of ’08 members in most South Sound districts still need to pass that WASL section or an alternative. Slightly higher rates of teens need to pass that assessment in Clover Park, Franklin Pierce and Tacoma, the South Sound districts with the highest rates of low-income students.
• In writing, 10 percent or fewer ’08 members need to pass that section in most districts.
• In math, more variation persists.More than half of seniors in Clover Park and Tacoma still need to pass the math WASL or take more math classes this school year. That compares to slightly less than half in Franklin Pierce and Bethel, and about a quarter of the ’08 students in University Place, Peninsula, Puyallup and Yelm districts.
Several administrators speculated that their school or district’s graduation rate would remain about the same, despite the new requirements.
“It won’t affect it as much as every kid having to pass the math WASL,” said Franklin Pierce Superintendent Frank Hewins. “I think we’ll be pretty close to where we normally are.”
In August, a state-commissioned analysis of several unidentified districts suggested that lack of course credits – the historic barrier to graduation – would present a far greater challenge than the WASL for the Class of 2008. And anecdotally, administrators in several South Sound districts told The News Tribune that it looks as though many of the students who haven’t passed the WASL are the same ones lagging in credits.
Though seniors in the small districts of Vashon Island and Orting are all on track to graduate, eight South Sound districts indicated 20 percent or more ’08 members were behind in credits. Tacoma had the highest rate – 29.5 percent – of credit-deficient class members.
“I hope we can catch all of the kids who would have graduated had these requirements not been in place,” said Power in Tacoma. “There will be, unfortunately, some kids who don’t have the credits to graduate.”
CONFUSION OVER ALTERNATIVES
If students fail the WASL, districts must offer an array of state-approved alternatives allowing teens another chance to prove they have the skills measured on the WASL.
That’s a good thing and a bad thing for the school staffers trying to implement the laundry list of options, updates, deadlines and exceptions.
First, they need to explain to families that passing the WASL math, reading and writing sections, and meeting the remaining requirements, yields a diploma and a “Certificate of Academic Achievement” – a new designation that state officials hope will inspire students to succeed on the math exam.
Teens who fail the math WASL but keep studying math and fulfill all other requirements will earn only the diploma.
If they want the certificate but have failed a WASL section, students can attempt one of several alternatives. But some of those alternatives were authorized by the lawmakers only in May and are still under development.
For example, students can submit scores on college entrance exams or certain Advanced Placement tests to prove competency. It wasn’t until this month, though, that the state set the minimum SAT scores for reading and writing and the minimum ACT score for reading; it still must set the ACT score for writing.
Meanwhile, students can submit Pre-SAT scores earned before September 2008 as an alternative – but only in math.
Got all that?
Administrators and counselors are “bordering on being overwhelmed,” said Brian Jeffries, the state superintendent’s graduation and policy director, who advises high schools on the requirements.
“They’re scared to death they’ll say the wrong thing or give misinformation and some kid will get screwed out of graduating.”
At the same time, school leaders are grateful for the alternatives.
Earlier this year, 194 Puyallup students – the most of any district in the state – attempted the “collection of evidence” alternative in math, compiling classroom assignments to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject.
Sixty-five percent, or 126 students met the math requirement.
“For us, that offers a real option for students who don’t do well in a formal test situation,” said Bob Silverman, executive director of assessment and accountability in the Puyallup School District.
FOCUS ON MATH
It’s a safe bet that more high school students are taking math this fall than ever before in the state. Most districts require only the state minimum of two years, and students typically take those two years in ninth and 10th grades.
In the South Sound well over 4,000 seniors who have yet to pass the math WASL are attempting to use a safety valve. It allows them to graduate if they earn the equivalent of two semesters of math in 12th grade. They must also retake the math WASL that year, but if they fail it, they can still graduate if they pass the two semesters of math.
Districts determine which of their courses fulfill the legislative mandate that the math class raise an individual student’s skills toward meeting the state math benchmarks.
Many schools are offering a new course designed by the state superintendent’s office for 11th- and 12th-graders who didn’t pass the WASL. As its name, “segmented math,” implies, the yearlong course breaks down concepts covered in the WASL into sections such as “probability and statistics” or “geometric sense and measurement.”
Washington High School teacher Sharon Jerzyk says it’s just what these students need.
Instead of simply memorizing formulas and plugging in numbers, the class requires students to understand the concepts behind math equations, a skill that’s critical to success on the WASL.
Lessons present story problems and demand answers in the same format as the test. The WASL phrase “support your answer in words, numbers and/or diagrams” is almost a mantra.
As Jerzyk recently led a story problem about the descent of hot-air balloons, she reminded the class, “We need ‘units’ on all our answers.”
Pointing to the number she had just jotted down, she said, “This would be ‘59’ what?”
“Fifty-nine minutes,” a boy eagerly responded.
Students sometimes lose points on the WASL, Jerzyk later said, because they find the correct answer but don’t specify what it’s measuring.
Sarita Camacho enjoys Jerzyk’s teaching and the course itself.
“We do stuff that’s similar to what’s on the WASL; I think that’s a big help,” said the Washington High senior. “I love it because it’s easy.”
Teachers stress that just because kids enroll in a math class doesn’t mean they’re home free. They have to do the work to pass the course.
Principals and teachers throughout the South Sound are already planning how to add yet more classroom opportunities next semester for seniors who flunk the first semester of math.
LEAVING NONE BEHIND
For all the headaches and anxiety the new standards have wrought, they also are spurring schools to help teens such as Tyler Marks from slipping through school without the basics.
The Graham-Kapowsin High School senior is on track with his credits and has met the reading and math WASL target. He’s missed passing the writing WASL twice, by one point each time.
Marks said he wasn’t sure how to improve his score until he began working with teacher Debra Schmeil this fall.
Graham-Kapowsin hired Schmeil to tutor teens who hadn’t passed the reading and writing WASL. She meets individually or in small groups with students two or three times a week, and designs lessons that dovetail with each student’s English class and individual needs.
“One of the biggest issues I see with half of the kids is they’ve had poor attendance all through school, so they’ve missed critical instruction. If they’re not going to be here, they won’t learn,” Schmeil said.
“The ones who come to tutoring really want to pass. Their credits are fine. They just need extra help.”
The latter group includes Marks, a soft-spoken cornerback and wide receiver for the Eagles football team.
In a recent session, Schmeil and Marks sat alongside each other, going line by line through his essay on a past WASL question: What would he grab if his house were on fire?
With a playful smile and teasing observations, Schmeil prodded the teen to think about the logical order of his sentences, his transitions and details.
“So that topic sentence tells me you’d take your personal computer because you’re concerned about saving your personal information,” Schmeil said. “So do your details fit the topic sentence?”
“No,” Marks said with a sheepish grin and proceeded to rewrite the paragraph.
Moments later, when he read his revised supporting sentences to her satisfaction, she exclaimed, “Helloooo! Hallelujah!”
“In this class I’ve learned so many things I didn’t know,” Marks said. “I learned about structure, and how to elaborate. … I used to write down the topic sentence and not explain it.
“I feel better that I took that class. I feel like I’m going to pass” the WASL.
Despite the criticisms of the state test, Schmeil believes it’s measuring essential skills.
“If you can read and write and are able to communicate at least at the sophomore level, you should do fine on the WASL or one of the alternatives,” said Schmeil, who’s taught for seven years. “If you can’t, you shouldn’t be able to leave high school with a diploma.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
WASL PROGRESS REPORT: CLASS OF 2008
This chart lists the number of students in each school districts Class of 2008 who should graduate next summer if they meet the states new requirements. It lists the number of students who have yet to meet the requirement to pass reading or writing on the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning or a state-approved alternative. It shows the number of students who have failed the math WASL and are taking another year of math to fulfill the new math requirement. It shows the number of students who are behind in course credits to graduate.
WASL 2008 Graduation Requirements: A Progress Report
|District||Class 08||Need WASL Reading||Need WASL Writing||Need WASL Math||Taking Math Classes||Behind in credits|
|North Thurston (4)||894||91||82||358||N/A||N/A|
Source: Individual school districts provided test score and credit data, which might vary in the way they were collected. The number of students needing to meet the WASL requirements includes students who havent yet taken the test, and transfer students whose scores arent yet available. These numbers likely underestimate the number of students who have met requirements because not all results of the WASL or state-approved alternatives are available.
N/A stands for not available.
1) Nearly all of Bethels Class of 08 students who did not pass the math WASL are taking math classes to fulfill the new state graduation requirement; the district estimates 25 percent of the Class of 08 is behind in credits to graduate.
2) Eatonville and Orting figures do not include August WASL retake results.
3) Fife figures do not include August WASL retake results or the 58 students in the Class of 2008 at the alternative Fife Learning Opportunity Center.
4) North Thurston, Puyallup and Tacoma estimate nearly all Class of 08 students who did not pass the math WASL are taking math classes.
5) Peninsula figures do not include 11 Henderson Bay Alternative students who dont have enough credits to be seniors.