WASL questions dominate at forum

MARYSVILLE — The candidates vying to run Washington schools were only asked once how they would change the WASL.

However, the controversial tests were mentioned repeatedly Saturday afternoon as four of the six candidates for state superintendent of public instruction gathered for a forum in Marysville.

The candidates in attendance were incumbent Terry Bergeson; Randy Dorn, a former legislator, teacher and principal; Don Hansler, a former teacher and administrator from the Bellevue School District; and Enid Duncan, an Edgewood city councilwoman. Candidates David Blomstrom and John Patterson Blair were not at the forum.

The four-year position is nonpartisan and will pay an annual salary of $121,000.

The three challengers for the state seat described the WASL as a rigid test that is failing to meet the needs of students with various abilities, goals and cultures.

Bergeson defended the tests, saying the state’s education system has improved since the implementation of the WASL. She said positive changes are planned for the statewide tests, which play a large role in determining whether students advance through school or earn their diplomas.

The candidates also discussed the need for more funding to help reduce class sizes, how to improve student discipline and their visions for the future of the state’s education system.

“The person sitting in this position has a direct effect on each and every one of our children,” said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who attended the forum in Marysville.

More than 30 people came to the forum, which was moderated by the Snohomish County League of Women Voters. Between opening and closing statements, candidates were given a minute each to respond to questions the audience submitted on index cards.

Earlier in the day, the candidates gathered for a forum at Edmonds Community College.

Responding to a question about improving education for students of different ethnicities and cultures, Dorn and Hansler said the WASL tests were a roadblock that prevented some students from succeeding. Duncan, who has a son with dyslexia, said test-heavy curriculum doesn’t connect well with the learning styles of all students.

“Testing like that is an assault on neural diversity,” Duncan said.

Bergeson stressed the need for schools to employ creative teachers and for the state to generate more innovative curriculum, such as a reading program used by the Tulalip Tribes that incorporates tribal stories into lessons.

“We need teachers who can teach well and differentiate their methods so we can reach kids with different ways of learning,” Bergeson said.

In discussing the future of Washington schools, Dorn, who is endorsed by the Washington Education Association, talked about the benefits of virtual schools and online education. He mentioned the success of the University of Phoenix, which allows people to earn degrees online.

“You’ve got to keep the options open, but you have to be sure that they’re quality,” Dorn said.

Hansler, a teacher since 1957, talked about his plans to offer bonuses to teachers who are evaluated as outstanding by parents. He also believes high schools should offer basic and advanced-degree programs — as well as more ways to graduate from high school — to give students more options in their educational paths.

Hansler said he’s met many students who were smart enough to graduate from high school, but they lacked the test-taking skills to pass the WASL.

“They could not translate their knowledge into a test format,” he said.

There wasn’t enough time for the candidates to answer all questions.

Peggy Langan of Marysville was hoping to hear more about the candidates’ ideas for improving opportunities for special education students.

But she heard enough during the forum to answer many of her own questions about the candidates.

“I definitely have a clearer idea of who I’m going to vote for,” Langan said. “The manner of how they addressed questions was important to me.”

Reporter Scott Pesznecker: 425-339-3436 or spesznecker@heraldnet.com.

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