BSD WASL scores don’t tell whole story

The mathematics questions on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests may have clear answers, but interpreting the results can be like a story problem from your worst student nightmare. Results from the 2006-2007 school year released earlier this month showed the Bremerton School District losing ground to the state average, and although that might be an answer of sorts, there’s a problem of what questions are really being asked.

To get to the heart of the matter, the most important variable might be measured in the stomach. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Bremerton had 59.3-percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced price meals in the last school year, as opposed to 46.3-percent in 1998-99. Of the state’s 298 districts, 85 had a rate of 50-percent or higher.

“The best predictor of low test scores is the poverty level,” said Bob Hamilton, Bremerton’s Director of Assessment, Special Education and School Support.

To qualify for free meals at school, the student’s family has to have an income at or below 130-percent of the official poverty level, which means at or below $26,845 per year for a family of four. Reduced price meals are granted to students whose family income is from 130-percent to 185-percent of the poverty level, which goes up to $38,203 annually.

A 2006 study by Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia, and Lei Zhang of Clemson University, showed that although scores have improved for low-income students over the last 10 years, test scores for students who are eligible for free or reduced price meals are only 93-percent of those who do not qualify. The study looked at scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams.

The National Low Income and Housing Coalition is concerned with those numbers. A coalition report cites research showing hyper mobility reduces academic achievement. The report states, “As school mobility is often linked to residential mobility, communities are starting to organize around the theme that ‘housing policy is education policy.’”

The military make-up of the Kitsap community adds greatly to the high mobility rate of the Bremerton schools. A perfect demonstration of this fact is clearly shown by Bremerton’s WASL test takers over the past three years. According to the district, in 2004 430 Bremerton seventh graders took the tests, and in 2007, as 10th graders, 412 completed the exams. However, only 288 of those students were members of both groups.

Bearing those factors in mind, comparing the Bremerton schools to the state average takes place on an uneven playing field. Still, a look at that field is worthwhile. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce rates the Washington Schools very highly. Washington gets an A in academic achievement, academic achievement of low-income and minority students, and return on investment.

A Sept. 16 report in the Seattle Times questions the validity of the state scores. The state says 84 percent of this year’s seniors have passed both the reading and writing portions of the WASL, which will be required for graduation for the first time this school year. But, for the first time, the state is no longer reporting on students who have fallen behind their class in credits. If the 5,457 students who the state considers juniors or sophomores due to earned credits were counted as in the past, the passing rate would drop to 81 percent.

“Bremerton has always counted those students as part of our senior class,” said Krista Carlson, Community Services Coordinator. “We’ve never changed that designation in midstream.”

Interestingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce already had Washington graded at a C in truth in advertising about student proficiency. State reporting practices aside, Washington students have been among the highest in the nation in SAT scores. Last year the only states averaging higher scores had a far lower percentage of seniors attempting the test. Fifty-three percent of Washington seniors took the college entrance exam, and the first state to beat Washington was Montana, where only 28 percent of the graduating class took the test.

“(Washington) is a very competitive environment,” Hamilton said.

Looking at Bremerton’s performance against those districts which fall most closely within the same demographic parameters, Bremerton fares quite well. 29 districts with 50 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced meals posted higher average WASL scores than Bremerton, although almost all were considerably smaller districts. Of districts with at least half as many students as the Bremerton schools, only Centralia, Moses Lake, Walla Walla and Prosser did better.

Bremerton’s scores were higher than 50 districts with 50 percent free or reduced price meal eligible students, with 22 of those falling within 10 percentage points of Bremerton’s 59.3. Among those Bremerton beats are Aberdeen, Clover Park (Lakewood), Highline (Burien), Mount Vernon, Tacoma, Tukwila and Pasco.

With the WASL scores meaning so much for this year’s graduating class, there is naturally controversy, and the state Legislature voted earlier this year to delay counting math and science scores toward graduation for another five years. But Bremerton Superintendent Dr. Bette Hyde supports the test.

“As a criterion reference tool, it’s pretty good,” Hyde said. “I think it should be a graduation requirement. I believe we ought to be held accountable. It’s an imperfect measure of a very good thing.”

Hyde added the unofficial district philosophy regarding test scores is, “You tell the truth, and you give hope.”

In truth, the Bremerton WASL scores have risen in eight of the nine categories measured since the 2001-02 school year, with the most dramatic being a 30.5-percentage point increase in students passing the 10th grade writing exam, going from 42.2 to 72.7 percent. The district has recorded an increase in scores in 10 of 11 categories measured for at least four school years.

Another encouraging sign is the decline in the dropout rate. Although the Bremerton schools saw a slight increase last year over 2005-06, the rate is still down nearly 4 percent from the 2002-03 school year.

Besides keeping more students in school, the district is also looking at a better than anticipated enrollment this year. The first day head count was 5,506 students translating to a full-time equivalent (FTE) of 5,002.2. The district had budgeted for 4,821 FTEs. “That’s a healthy sign for us,” Carlson said.

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