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Advanced-Learning legislation moves forward in both chambers for high school students

Tony Moore - Courtesy photo
Tony Moore
— image credit: Courtesy photo

By Kylee Zabel
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

House and Senate education-committee members are attempting to craft legislation that would automatically enroll Washington State high school students in advanced classes upon passing the statewide learning assessment.

The effort has not skipped along without opposition, however, as parents, teachers and others believe there are additional problems outside of what school boards may remedy with automatic enrollment.

Students passing the statewide assessment —the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) and End-of-Course Assessments (EOC) — would be enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Cambridge and Honors classes.

After an amendment to the Senate bill, Running Start would be conditionally added to the list.

AP, IB and Cambridge classes are dual-credit, college-level courses designed to prepare students for post-secondary education. Cambridge is currently only offered in Washington State at Federal Way High School.

The policy being pursued through HB 1642 and its Senate companion, SB 5243, is derived from a pilot program initiated in Federal Way at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. At first the program was criticized by local officials, parents and teachers causing the district to scale back its policy and allow parents to pull their student(s) out of the program.

Comments received by school board members indicated that students who are automatically enrolled could hold back students who voluntarily choose to take advanced courses. In essence, it is believed that students automatically enrolled may cause teachers to "dumb-down" the curriculum at the expense of the students who wish to be in the class with or without automatic enrollment.

However, these comments stirred support for the program from school board members and education reform advocates. Tony Moore, president of the Federal Way School Board, was one disheartened by those comments.

"There are people who believe that not all children can learn, can excel and have the intellectual capacity to be challenged. In Federal Way, we reject that notion," he said.

Setting the bar high

Now lawmakers would like to see that notion rejected across the state.

Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle), sponsor of the House version, said, "When you set the bar high, you can rise to the occasion to reach that bar."

Similarly, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who has not yet thrown support to or opposed the legislation, said that when expectations are raised, students strive to meet those expectations.

"It's obvious to me that when you set standards, you want to set them high enough," he said. "Students tend to perform to what's expected of them."

Most in favor of the measures cite Federal Way's policy as being successful, referring to the increase in advanced placement enrollment.

In fact, it is for this reason that The Washington Post has four of Federal Way's high schools on the High School Challenge list, formerly known as Newsweek's list of America's Best High Schools.

The Post cites the number of assessments taken by students in advanced classes and divides that by the number of graduating seniors. If the ratio is 1,000 or more, the school makes the list.

While official data has not yet been accumulated on student achievements among those automatically enrolled in advanced high school classes who are now in college or participating in other post-secondary school endeavors, data from the University of Washington (UW) may be revealing.

For the 2006 UW freshman class the grade-point average (GPA) of students within the 25th percentile was 3.08. For Federal Way's Thomas Jefferson High School, which offers the IB program, the average GPA for its alumni at the UW was 3.02. For Federal Way's Todd Beamer High School it was 2.83.

The average graduation time of students at a four-year university obtaining a bachelor's degree is four to five years. Of Federal Way's 2007 high school graduating class, from all its high schools, only 24.1 percent of the students earned college degrees. For Bellevue high school graduates of that same year, 39.7 percent have graduated from their university.

For some observers there are myriad arguments as to why some students have a higher success rate than others in college. Additional funding for the state's K-12 education system, at least for the State Supreme Court, is the solution.

The court's 2008 McCleary vs. Washington State decision clearly outlines funding goals the Legislature must achieve in order to meet the constitutional obligation "to make ample provision for the education of all children."

Others, including the Federal Way School Board, say it's a parental involvement issue. Moore believes Federal Way's acceleration policy is a tool to incite parent engagement.

Students in that district who pass the statewide assessment are not notified they will take part in advanced classes during their next semester. Often students aren't aware of their enrollment until they come to class the first day.

"They have conscripted people into the program without notice to the parents," said Charles Hoff, former president and vice president of Federal Way Public Schools.

What Hoff sees is a failure of the school board to reach out to parents in hopes of spurring engagement. In a study conducted by Dr. Arnaud Chevalier at Royal Holloway, University of London, it was found that student exam results were affected five times more by parent-involvement-factors than teaching or any other institutional factor.

A greater partnership between school boards and parents is necessary so that parents understand the options their students have and can identify a clear path to success, argued Hoff.

"School is like a one-way street," he said. "There are a lot of intersections, but once you pass them you can't go back."

Other concerns

There are additional concerns about the applicability of an automatic advanced placement program across all communities in the state.

Mari Taylor, president-elect of the Washington State School Directors Association, stated that different communities have different needs and options for students, suggesting this one-size-fits-all policy may not work for all districts. It is for this reason that Taylor and others hope the legislation would give more deference to communities and school districts.

"The challenge is not that students aren't capable of pursuing rigorous academic courses," she asserted. "It's our systems that aren't always capable of exclusively going in one direction."

Both bills have been heard in the respective House Education Committee and Senate Early & K-12 Education Committee. With strong bipartisan support in the House on passage 85-12 and unanimous support in the Senate (47-0), it is likely they could advance further this session.

Despite arguments made against the bills all parties and stakeholders have agreed on one major improvement schools need: make advanced courses more appealing to all students, not a select few.

"If you want every student in our state to be globally competitive, then we have every responsibility to place these students on a clear and articulated path to success," said Josh Garcia, deputy superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.

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