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Superintendent: 700 sophomores will fail WASL

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Federal Way Public Schools superintendent Tom Murphy expects 700 sophomores in the district won't pass all three sections of the state assessment exam this spring.

This is the first year sophomores have to pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to earn their diplomas as seniors. They have to pass three sections –– reading, writing and mathematics –– and have multiple chances to retake all or parts of the test they don't pass.

Murphy gave his failure estimate during his annual State of the Schools speech at a meeting of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce. Another way to look at it is the total number of seniors who graduated last June from Thomas Jefferson and Federal Way high schools was 712.

The school district has started summer programs for elementary and secondary students not passing or almost meeting the state standards in the three areas. Governor Christine Gregoire and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson have asked the Legislature to amend the state budget to help all districts fund similar summer programs.

Meanwhile, the state's largest teachers' union, the Washington Education Assocation, is lobbying elected officials to cut the test from the high school graduation requirements.

But most of Murphy's speech on Wednesday was spent lauding the students, staff and teaching faculty of the district for their efforts. And he compared how the district was in 1999, when he was appointed superintendent, to 2005.

"I am here, once again, to tell you that the state of your school district is strong and solid, and improving each year," he said.

Before he said a word, Murphy was given a standing ovation by the people packed into the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club banquet room. Several tables in the room had school district employees sitting at them.

He noted the changes in the district compared to 1999 –– more minority students, more students passing the reading portion of the WASL and more students coming from families considered poor by the federal government.

Even seven years ago, the percentage of minority students in the district was significantly less –– 33 percent –– than the percentage of white students, but Murphy predicted this school year would be the last in which whites were the majority. According to the district, 49 percent of the student population are children of color.

"We must work harder to understand the cultures being brought to us and help all students navigate the maze of growth and learning in a safe, secure, enriching environment," Murphy said.

Around 43 percent of the elementary school students were at or near poverty, according to the district. It is generally considered there is a correlation between students who live in poverty and low test scores. In 1999, there were 29 percent of the student population in this category.

Murphy praised reading scores on the WASL in fourth, seventh and 10th grades. In the 2005 results, more than 84 percent of the fourth-grade students met or exceeded the state standards.

He noted that reading scores for seventh and 10th-graders were also up, especially from 1999. That year, more than 46.7 percent of sophomores and more than 40 percent of seventh-graders passed the reading portion. Results from the exam taken last spring show 79.2 percent of 10th-graders met or exceeded the state standard, while almost 75 percent of seventh-graders did the same.

Students learning English as their second language did better on the state exam than any of their peers statewide, and those at Mark Twain Elementary School did better on the reading portion of the test than native speakers.

The difference in the scores between minority students and white students has grown smaller and almost eliminated in the fourth grade, Murphy said.

Still, there is work to be done, Murphy said. The district's students struggle to improve their math scores, mirroring a problem across the state, and he said additional staff training has started so teachers can focus on the subject like they have on reading.

Mobility has also been an issue as thousands of students move in and out of the district every year. Of the students in the district who were fourth-graders in 1999, only 50 percent are still in the district as sophomores. It's challenging for the district to make sure all students are meeting the state's standards, Murphy said.

"It's going to take all of us working together, and believing that each and every child in our school district can excel, can acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities to become positive productive members of our society," he said.

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

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