County highest in WASL rebels

  • By Melissa Slager and Eric Stevick / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, December 10, 2005 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

Snohomish County teenagers led the way among those refusing to take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests last spring, according to a Herald analysis.

Of the 1,016 sophomores who refused to take each of the WASL reading, writing and math tests, 23 percent came from Snohomish County. Marysville-Pilchuck and Lake Stevens high schools topped the list statewide.

“None of my kids have ever taken the WASL, and they never will,” said Michelle Derus, whose son opted out of the test last spring at Lake Stevens High School as a sophomore.

Students may opt out of one or more portions of the WASL. Statewide, 1,359 sophomores refused to take at least part of the test.

But with more than 76,000 sophomores statewide, the rejections are a drop in the bucket.

However, the tiny rebellion can have a big effect on the way schools are perceived. The refusals are added to the number of students who fail to meet standards, and that drives down the passing rates reported to the public.

An opt-out of the tests this spring will mean more than a zero score – it will mean passing up a diploma. The graduating class of 2008, this year’s sophomores, is the first required to pass the reading, writing and math tests in order to graduate.

“We need students to know what the stakes are, and they need to participate for their own good,” Marysville Superintendent Larry Nyland said.

He expects the number of refusals to dramatically decline as a result of the graduation requirement.

Overall, refusal rates have remained fairly steady the last three years, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In all, 1,906 students in fourth, seventh and 10th grades refused at least one of the three WASL tests last spring, according to more than 227,000 test results reviewed by The Herald.

Students who opted out of the state test last year generally were white and relatively well off. The refusals do not erase achievement gaps in gender, and removing them could widen gaps.

Refusals can be tracked in large part to anti-WASL sentiment.

Derus, who in addition to her son in high school has three younger children in Lake Stevens schools, said she believes her children would pass the WASL. “But we feel it is wrong.”

She is a member of Mothers Against WASL, and said the group is active in her community with street-corner rallies and meetings. The group also is active in Marysville and has members in Spokane – other areas with high numbers of refusals.

Lake Stevens administrators require a signed note from a parent before a student is allowed to opt out of the WASL. School officials and teachers also talk to students and call parents to discuss the ramifications, district spokeswoman Arlene Hulten said.

Last spring, some of the students who refused to take the WASL in Lake Stevens were repeating the 10th grade and simply refused to take the test a second time, Hulten said.

Opting out does not always indicate a stand against the test.

At Forks High School on the Olympic Peninsula, scores plummeted last spring when 18 students – about one-third of the sophomore class – opted out.

It wasn’t an anti-WASL crusade, but a battle between students and the former principal that fueled the dissent, said Frank Walter, superintendent of the Quillayute Valley School District.

“The scores looked dismal, but the reason was really clear,” he said. “I expect everyone will take it this year.”

Counting refusals as part of a school’s total score is meant as a check against potential gaming – such as excusing a struggling child to keep a school’s scores up.

Facing increased state and federal mandates for performance, schools are now doing what they can to encourage all students to take the test, such as ice cream giveaways and pep assemblies.

The number of refusals at Marysville-Pilchuck High School doubled last spring. There’s no way to know how those students would have performed on the tests. Removed from the equation, passing rates at Marysville-Pilchuck would jump from 65 percent to 74 percent in reading and from 42 percent to 49 percent in math.

Vice principal Ken Tallquist recalls seeing the stack of letters from parents opting their sophomores out of the tests.

“It was a staggering number,” he said.

Parents are likely to continue to opt their children out of the test until they are satisfied lawmakers and the State Board of Education see the graduation requirement as a done deal, said Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of Educational Service District 189, which serves local school districts.

“I don’t believe the hype and the focus that the WASL has received is appropriate or desirable,” he added. “It seems to me that we have lost in many of the discussions the focus on the learning … and instead are focusing on the test score.”

Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or mslager@

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