News

Sophomores aren't only ones grappling with the WASL

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

2006 will see two firsts in Federal Way’s education community.

Sophomores have to pass the state assessment test –– the WASL –– this year to graduate in 2008.

And freshmen can take the test for the first time and pass it a year ahead of schedule for their diplomas.

More than 400 high school students taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning this year aren’t sophomores, and 336 of that group are freshmen.

The reading and writing sections of the WASL are being given this week, and the math and science sections will be taken in April after spring break.

Students have been taking the WASL since the mid-1990s. Many students taking the exam now have been taking it since they were fourth-graders.

Fourth, seventh and 10th grades are the years that politicians, educators, the news media and the public give the most attention. Yet, the test –– in various forms –– has been added to other grades over the years. Right now, sophomores must pass the reading, writing and math sections to graduate. They have five chances to pass. However, there are other opportunities to earn a diploma.

This is the first year freshmen can take the test and have it count towards graduation. About 6,600 freshmen across Washington have signed up, said Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for the state superintendent of public instruction.

In Federal Way, about 14 percent of the ninth-graders are being tested, according to school district officials.

Any freshman in the district could take the test, said Pat Cummings, Federal Way Public Schools’ assessment director.

Freshmen who were interviewed for this article (all attend Federal Way High School) are taking the test a year early for many reasons. Federal Way High has the largest group of freshmen taking the test (159), while Thomas Jefferson High School has 61 and Todd Beamer and Decatur high schools have 42 and 39, respectively. Truman, the alternative high school, has 17 freshmen, and Federal Way Public Academy has 18.

Adriana Alexis is taking the reading, writing and math sections to see where she is on the test and “to get some if it out of the way.”

Taking the exam as a freshman counts and is not a freebie, despite some ninth-graders saying they feel less pressure and that this year is practice. State education officials are warning students it’s not.

With a 4.0 grade point average (gpa) and taking a course load completely of pre-Advanced Placement courses, Alexis, 15, said she is most concerned with the math section of the test because of geometry she is taking for the first time. She has been spending extra time on the subject.

Alleah Pac, 14, is waiting a year to take the math section of the exam to prepare but is taking the reading and writing portions.

Math is the stumbling block for many students and has frustrated educators who see reading and writing scores climbing at a higher rate than math. Statewide, 47.5 percent of last year’s sophomores passed the section, and 51.1 percent of Federal Way’s 10th-graders met the state’s requirements.

Connor Norton, 15, is also taking the reading and writing sections and believes the pressure is less intense as a freshman. He has spent time working on essay structure and organization so he can answer questions on the test properly, he said.

Issac Jimenez, 15, who is taking all three tests, said taking the exams now is a chance for freshmen to work harder on the areas they struggle in. Norton, Jimenez and Pac have grade point averages (gpa) in the mid to high- 3.0 range.

However, the students said many of their friends not taking advanced courses and with lower gpas are taking all three sections or at least two this year.

District data shows the average gpa of a freshmen taking the WASL is 2.9, compared to the average 2.1 of freshmen not taking the test. Cummings said the difference is significant, as it’s almost a full grade. Students getting Bs or higher are more likely to take the test than those getting Cs and lower.

Also interesting to Cummings is the percentage of freshman girls taking the test compared to boys. She said that of the freshmen taking the WASL, 60 percent are girls, while 40 percent are boys. Girls make up 48 percent of the district’s freshman population.

Most freshmen taking the test identify themselves as white (51 percent), which is the largest ethnic population –– 49 percent –– of freshmen in the district.

Asians make up the second largest group (27 percent) taking the test, but are 16 percent of the freshman population, Cummings noted.

African-Americans and Latinos each made up 10 percent of the freshmen taking the test and are 16 and 14 percent of the district’s freshmen population, respectively.

The percentage of freshmen who claim free or reduced-price lunch status and taking the test is 2 percent less (26 percent) than those taking the test and not claiming the lunch status. Free or reduced-price lunch is typically an indication of poverty.

Juniors and a few seniors are also taking the WASL even though they can graduate without taking the test.

A transfer student from another district and a junior, Jeff Sperry, is taking the test to put on his college transcripts. There’s also some school pride: Sperry said he is taking the test because it makes Truman look good.

While Truman has test preparation classes for students, juniors like Sperry aren’t allowed to attend. He has been working with his advisor and taking Extended Learning Opportunity courses to get ready for the test.

Melanie Cooper had enough credits at the semester break to become a junior at Decatur High School. She is taking the WASL’s math and science components again because she missed them by a few points last year. Cooper passed the reading and writing. While not nervous about the test, Cooper advised it’s not something a person can cram for the night before. She said strong writing skills are important to explain answers clearly and correctly to the people grading the exams.

Taking the WASL doesn’t bother the freshmen other than test jitters, but passing it to graduate is something they don’t approve.

Norton said how test answers are written seems to make the difference whether a student passes.

What bothers Alexis is while the test is given in the second year of high school and is one graduation requirement, there are still two more years of school to grade.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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