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State leaders unhappy S'side School Board outspoken

Local directors seek alternative to WASL testing

The Sunnyside School District's rebel opposition to the state's 2008 Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) graduation mandates is attracting the ire of state education leaders.

The attention is the result of a local newspaper headline proclaiming that Sunnyside school officials had voted to eliminate the state-mandated Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) from its programs. The action has caused an uproar in state education circles, according to local district leaders.

The newspaper story actually detailed that the local school board voted to submit a legislative proposal that called for replacing the WASL with other testing.

"We've succeeded in getting the undivided attention of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Terry Bergeson," said Dr. Rick Cole, Sunnyside School District Superintendent.

In fact, Bergeson, who is a huge proponent of the WASL becoming a state high school requirement by 2008, is not happy with the Sunnyside School Board's action, he said.

The action by the Sunnyside School Board at its meeting last month could result in Bergeson making a visit to Sunnyside in August.

"We certainly want to invite her to come visit us," said Cole.

He said Bergeson will be in the Yakima Valley in early August when the state association of school superintendents holds its state convention in Yakima.

"We hope to have her meet with the Sunnyside School Board so the board might explain its position," he said.

He said the Board is hoping to clarify its position on the WASL in future talks with state education leaders.

According to School Board Director Bill Smith, the board's action, taken at its June 24 meeting, was unprecedented in the state. "But it reflects our concern, and that of other districts, about the state's plan to implement rigid testing requirements," he said.

"I think the state is confusing good teaching techniques with passing the test," Smith said.

Smith made those comments during the school board's retreat held Tuesday night at the district's Sunnyside administration office.

At issue is a growing realization among state educators that Latino students continue to score lower on the WASL than their Angelo counterparts, said Sunnyside School Board Director Lorenzo Garza Jr.

He pointed to a five-year trend of WASL test scores that show more than two-thirds of last year's Latino seventh graders statewide are not on track to graduate, given the state's current policies.

While the state now allows "re-takes" of the rigid test, the Sunnyside School Board is concerned that even with re-takes the majority of Sunnyside students will not qualify for high school diplomas in 2008.

"We feel that will be true in many other districts across the state," Garza said.

"The question is not, can all students meet the high standards," he stressed. "The question is, how do we make high standards the goal for all students without punishing them and those who are trying hard to teach them," he said.

"We are unfairly punishing teachers and learners when we set rigorous standards without allowing sufficient time to learn or without providing sufficient resources, especially for students who face immense barriers," he said.

Statewide on the 2003 WASL tests administered to fourth, seventh and 10th graders, Latino students scored in the last three-fourths of the categories, and no higher than next to last. In Sunnyside, Latino students ranked last in 2003 in all WASL categories and those students made up nearly 80 percent of the Sunnyside enrollment, said Cole.

"But that is not to say that our students don't do well on other forms of assessments," he added. But the unfairness of the WASL is particularly apparent when it comes to immigrant students, said Garza.

"Especially those students who speak little or no English and neither they nor their parents understand our system," he explained.

Additionally, some students are illiterate in their native language, like their parents, and they enter our system well after kindergarten or first grade, he explained.

The Sunnyside School District, in an effort to address the language problem, moved last year to adopt dual language classrooms in the elementary grades.

But the concerns about the WASL extends beyond the Latino children, said Garza. He said learning is slowed by many factors, not the least of which is poverty and the societal afflictions that often come with it.

Yakima County has one of the lowest poverty rates in the state, and many of our students don't have the benefit of technology in their homes or parents who are strong advocates for their learning, said Cole.

In order to aid in removing some of the students' learning barriers, the district embarked on an ambitious plan two years ago to improve parenting education. This year the board will place more emphasis on that component of its efforts to aid students.

"We hope that by helping parents to take advantage of our community learning resources, we can begin to improve their learning, which in turn will help the students, " Cole explained.

In the meantime, students are being expected to jump high academic hurdles without the benefit of having learning and economic barriers removed from their educational path, said Garza.

"We are placed in a difficult position of advocating for a fair system without sounding like we are opposed to high standards," said Garza.

"But to do nothing is far worse. We want to keep students in school, not push them out the door prematurely. We already know our prisons are well stocked with high school dropouts," he added.

Garza said he expects other school boards and educational organizations will be stating their concerns about the current direction of the WASL and education reform when the Washington State School Directors Association next meets.

He said Sunnyside plans to submit a legislative proposal to the state association to seek to do away with the WASL test and to find an alternative means to testing students.

The state association will meet in September, Garza said.

"In the meantime, we look forward to meeting with Dr. Bergeson and having her meet with members of the community to explain our concerns," said Smith.

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