Presentation to Community Forum on Education and Graduation Requirements Tulalip Community Center

December 10, 2005


Juanita Doyon, Director

Parent Empowerment Network


Parent Empowerment Network (PEN) is very pleased that this meeting is taking place and that the WASL graduation requirement is being questioned in a formal setting.


I am here because my organization believes in the goals of education reform: to improve schools and teaching and to graduate students with the skills needed to become successful and responsible citizens. PEN supports high standards and expectations. What we don’t support is the use of one punitive tool, and a flawed one at that, to hold the entire system and its students accountable.


The president of the Seattle School Board, Brita Butler-Wall recently stated in the PI, “The WASL was designed to tell us whether we’re doing a good job of educating a child. But what it is explicitly not designed to do is make a decision about an individual child. That’s a pretty big difference.”


Molly O'Connor, the acting director of Partnership for Learning, was recently quoted in the Seattle Weekly, saying, "It's fine to be obsessed with the test (WASL) if it's for the right reasons." As one of our advisors pointed out, obsession is a disease.  As a parent and the director of PEN, I am here to express concerns and suggestions about just what “fixes” we put in place and the direction of our education system. It is extremely important that the cure to the ills of WASL not be worse than the disease and that we do not simply apply a Band-aid where radiation-- or amputation-- is needed.


The WASL is an expensive, systemic obsession. Its tentacles reach into curriculum and instruction, course offerings, and professional development. The WASL obsession has taken over the lives of our children to the point that many become emotionally and physically ill.


Many “emergency valve” solutions have been proposed. One such valve was the lowering of the cut score that we saw in election year 2004. This helped a few more students jump the bar but left the historically “left behind” behind still. Another “emergency valve” solution is the alternative test that is being developed by OSPI. These emergency valves solve political problems by raising pass rates or graduation numbers but do nothing for our schools and our students.


As long as the WASL is held up as the pinnacle of success and the standard to reach, any alternative assessment will lead to further stratification and disenfranchisement of our children. We already see this in school newsletters and assemblies that praise the WASL winners and shun WASL losers. Unless WASL as a graduation requirement is stopped entirely, the next generation of Washington citizens will be marked victims of WASL.


It would be easy to become discouraged, looking around the country and seeing that graduation tests are the reform du jour and seemingly here to stay.  However, there are experts and educational associations throughout the country that disagree with the exit exam policy. Many disagree with a statewide test altogether.


The state superintendent often holds up Massachusetts as an example of a working exit test system. Massachusetts claims a 95% senior pass rate on their exam. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has forgotten about its dropout or push-out rate that has escalated from 9th through 12th grade, particularly for minority students. In fact, the actual Massachusetts senior pass rate for 2005 (after multiple retakes) was 51% for Hispanic and 62% for African American seniors, when dropout rate is taken into account. 


In California, 100,000 seniors will be denied diplomas this year. Though they have fulfilled all other requirements, they haven’t passed the test.  Another 45,000 would-be seniors failed the test as sophomores and have since disappeared from school records—dropped out.


I would like to hold up Nebraska as a far better example for Washington to emulate. The PEN board and I have been studying Nebraska’s School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS). We have included a question and answer overview of the STARS program and a condensed (with permission) version of a speech delivered by Nebraska State Superintendent Doug Christensen at Nebraska’s first annual Leadership for Classroom Assessment Conference, this past September.  We hope you will find this information as promising as we have and that it encourages a conversation about accountability that is broader than the “WASL plus alternatives” model that is currently being discussed.




Parent Empowerment Network is a statewide, nonprofit organization. The mission of PEN is to provide education and peer training to parents, teachers, and community members at-large, in developing strategies to promote sound policy for quality public schools.