RENTON—The results of this year's Washington Assessment of Student Learning show on paper a problem the superintendent of public instruction says has been torturing her for a long time: Only about half of the state's students have mastered mathematics.
A bright spot: students in minority groups are closing the achievement gap in writing and reading, but they, too, are not making much progress in math.
In announcing the 2006 WASL results on Friday, Terry Bergeson said there are a lot of reasons why only 51.2 percent of 10th graders, 48.7 percent of seventh graders and 59 percent of fourth graders met the standard in this year's statewide exams.
"Mathematics is our challenge," she said. "This is not a motivation problem ... this is a challenge in terms of skills."
She said the math curriculum in many schools must be changed and the state needs to focus on training teachers and giving students the extra help they need. Although some educators may object to being told how to teach their students, Bergeson said schools should be given a menu of the best math programs to choose from.
Parents will applaud this idea of a more standardized math curriculum, said Linda Hanson, president of the state Parent Teacher Association. She said this issue will likely be on the PTA legislative lobbying agenda this year. Hanson also agreed with Bergeson that schools need more money to teach their students and train their teachers.
"We all want the same things for our kids," she said, even though it may sometimes seem like her organization and state education officials are working against each other.
"All of our parents want high standards and we want our kids to learn to high standards," Hanson said.
Bergeson said it's time to win the math war in the same way Washington schools changed their approach and worked hard to teach kids to read nearly a decade ago.
Last year's 10th graders — the class of 2008 — are the first students required to pass all three parts of the WASL to graduate, although some will meet the standard through legislative-approved alternatives.
Only 52.1 percent of them passed all three of the WASL tests required to graduate — reading, writing and math — and of those who passed two out of three, 92.3 percent did not meet the math standard.
The class of 2008 will have up to five chances to pass the tests. Some took their first retakes last month after many of them spent a few months in summer school.
Bergeson acknowledged she has had many conversations this summer — including with Gov. Chris Gregoire — about whether the state should consider postponing implementation of the new graduation requirements.
"The governor is asking for all the information I can give her," Bergeson said, adding that she thinks putting off the graduation requirement is not the answer.
But the numbers are startling: 14,418 Washington 10th graders scored so poorly on the math WASL they will probably need individual tutoring to make the grade. Another 17,773 students were closer to meeting the standard, Bergeson said, and would probably pass a retake exam after taking one more algebra or geometry class.
Teachers hope this year's WASL results will be a wake-up call for the Legislature, said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association.
"We're poised to deny diplomas to nearly half the high school students in our state," Hasse said. "I think that common sense will prevail and lawmakers will look again at the wisdom of using the WASL as one indicator along with others and not use it as a graduation test."
Hasse also expressed concern about the way the test results were presented this year, saying he saw evidence of a political spin to make the numbers look better by not including the students who did not take the test when calculating the percentages of how many met the standard.
He also said the graduation alternatives approved by the 2006 Legislature did not go far enough. Some students will be given a chance to show a portfolio of work if they do not pass the WASL, but Hasse said the state has set aside money to pay for only 600 assessments.
Others will be able to show that their grades are comparable to other students who passed the WASL, but Hasse said that number will not be enough to cover the thousands of students who will not pass.
Bergeson pointed out that the Legislature set aside $28.5 million to pay for extra help for last year's 10th graders who failed one or more section of the WASL. This can pay for tutoring, extra classes and more summer school.
Another problem: A 7.5 percent drop in the number of seventh graders who passed the reading test in 2006. She called the drop a statistical anomaly and said there was no possibility of a scoring error.
"We had two years of substantial gains and we lost some of it this year," Bergeson said. "This is going to be very painful for a lot of people."
She urged educators not to change their programs because of one drop in scores.
— The Associated Press