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Old WASL-era rancor has disappeared as new testing system takes effect

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Despite widespread education budget woes, students, parents and teachers in Clark County have ample reason to enter the new academic season brimming with confidence. First, there’s the sense of newness; a clean-slate perspective is invigorating. Second, there are signs that high-stakes test scores are improving statewide and locally, and that the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is getting a better handle on proficiency testing as we move beyond the WASL era.

Indeed, the divisive rancor surrounding the old Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests seems to have dissipated now that the state is using the High School Proficiency Exam and end-of-course exams to measure academic progress.

As Howard Buck reported in Wednesday’s Columbian, statewide scores for 10th-graders in reading and writing (tests taken last spring) were about the same or slightly better than last year, but what’s more encouraging is a significant increase in math scores. About two-thirds of students statewide who took the Algebra EOC exam passed, including 60.8 percent of 10th-graders. Almost three-fourths of students who took the Geometry EOC exam passed, including 66.3 percent of 10th-graders. Most districts are showing EOC math passing rates 10-20 percentage points higher than in HSPE math.

Most Clark County districts showed math passing rates at or above statewide averages, with Camas, Hockinson and Ridgefield leading the way. And the county’s largest school districts — Evergreen and Vancouver — have passing rates in reading and writing that are at or above state averages.

This matters because passing grades in reading and writing are required for high school diplomas and, starting with the class of 2015, seniors will have to pass both math tests to graduate.

This post-WASL confidence should bolster the confidence of the three factions we mentioned earlier — students, parents and teachers — as they begin the school year. Classes began Tuesday in the Washougal and Green Mountain districts. School started Wednesday in the Evergreen, Hockinson, La Center and Ridgefield districts, with Camas starting next Tuesday and the Battle Ground and Vancouver districts starting classes next Wednesday.

But there’s a fourth stakeholder we haven’t mentioned, the one that foots most of the bill: taxpayers. When test scores and graduation rates don’t meet standards, taxpayers correctly feel frustrated that their investment isn’t paying off. The bitter WASL controversy only made matters worse. Now, with HSPE and EOC tests, the state can settle into steady progress. The improved math scores were assessed recently by Susan Enfield, interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and a former Evergreen administrator: “Instead of teaching to the test, we have worked to make sure our students truly understand basic concepts. That approach has proven extremely successful.”

Another factor: OSPI has implemented changes that reduce test stress felt by students and teachers. Test periods have been shortened by about half. More students are taking proficiency tests online, and 82 percent of students who did so earlier this year say they prefer that option.

But it’s safe to assume that another, difficult-to-measure factor in the rise of education confidence has been eliminating the word “WASL” from the equation. Mere mention of that word used to trigger boisterous, distracting debates. Now, Washingtonians can see the steady progress emerging. State Superintendent Randy Dorn correctly warns that three or more years of data will be necessary to accurately measure this progress. But already we know that going to school — to teach and to learn — is a little more comfortable than it used to be.