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WASL Wars 

This election is about getting it right. We've gone the wrong direction on the WASL. It needs to be replaced." That's the point Randy Dorn tried to hammer home when he debated incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson on Seattle's King5 news earlier this month. The state's controversial and oft-reviled multi-grade test -- the Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- is busted, and only he can fix it.

The former state legislator and school principal says the test -- which assesses reading, writing, math and science in almost every grade between third and 10th -- "is taking the joy and hope and opportunity away from kids." He says the test is too expensive and eats up too much of students' time in the classroom -- especially for a tool that he continually argues doesn't tell teachers enough. "It just tells you whether you passed or failed. It doesn't tell you where you were weak," he says.

He points repeatedly to the math portion of the WASL, which (like the reading and writing portions) was intended to be a requirement for high school graduation. Last year, legislators delayed the math requirement until 2010, because of concerns over failure rates. This year, Gov. Christine Gregoire axed the requirement altogether.

"The incumbent's 12-year legacy leaves half of our 10th graders failing a math test that is at an 8th-grade level," Dorn writes on his Website. "A decade of overemphasis on WASL-aligned inquiry-based math, which promotes writing about math at the expense of mastering basic skills, has resulted in a generation of math-illiterate students."

Dorn advocates doing away with the test altogether. "It's beyond just tweaking -- it needs to be replaced," he says. "Does it need to start from scratch? No. Other states have proven programs."

Terry Bergeson avers that ditching the WASL would be "a disaster." Such pointed language isn't unusual in what's become a tight race. Fundraising's been competitive, and a recent poll shows Dorn leading by 5 percent, after the incumbent drubbed him by 15 percent in the primary election.

Bergeson, who has worked as a school counselor and administrator in Washington for 40 years, says it's important to have a test that teaches directly to the educational standards the state has adopted. While the WASL's course has been rocky, they're improving it over time, she says.

"A year from now, with new math standards, we'll have a new math test. We're revising the science standards and then we'll be revising the science tests," she says. "The WASL as we know it will be essentially replaced with a good assessment of the standards. We are evolving the system to meet the needs that we've learned about."

Besides, she says, this election is about more than just the WASL. Equally important is the state of education funding in Washington. "When we decided to do our education improvement law [in 1993] ... we changed the goal of education," she says. "Not just 'do good lesson plans' but 'we want results.' We want kids to learn math and reading and science skills to a level that they can be successful. That result with kids was the driver, but we never changed the funding system."

She says while the costs of everything from feeding students to transporting them to keeping the lights on in their classrooms has risen, the level of funding has stayed the same. "When fuel costs go up the way they do, we don't have any escalator or cost-of-living adjustment that would keep up with the fuel costs," she says. "We have rural districts out in the Spokane area that want four-day school weeks because they drive hundreds and hundreds of miles, and there's not enough money in the state to pay for that."

Dorn agrees. In an interview with The Inlander, he broadens the argument for his candidacy, saying that not only does he want to scrap the WASL, he intends to battle the state Legislature for more money and take on increasing drop-out levels. "Those are the three things I think this is a referendum on," he says. "I don't think the SPI has done a good job on any of those three."

Meager funding is not the only thing the two agree on. Both point to what they call unreasonable expectations built into federal No Child Left Behind policies, which have further complicated how the state's WASL test is administered.

Earlier this month, Bergeson's office reported that 628 schools and 17 districts in Washington are failing the federal government's increasingly stringent benchmarks -- about twice as many as last year. Dorn says NCLB's goals are impossible and that "when we start having high-end schools start to fail, there's gonna be a public outcry."

Bergeson points to the Inland Northwest. "Spokane has some of the highest-performing high-poverty schools in the state of Washington," she says. "But many of them can't meet [Annual Yearly Progress goals], so they look like they're failing when they've made more gains than some of the richest schools in the state. It undermines any rational person's idea of accountability."

Neither candidate, however, has a clear idea of how to deal with No Child Left Behind, other than lobbying Congress and hoping that the next president has a better idea.

Nor have the candidates presented a clear picture of their backgrounds or their vision for the office. Dorn argues that the education system is in the crapper. Bergeson says the WASL is too much for teachers to deal with. But as chair of the House Education Committee, Dorn was the one who wrote the education reform bill in 1993. And Bergeson was the one appointed to build the WASL in that bill's aftermath.

They also present certain similarities. Both come from unions -- Dorn heads the school staffers' union; Bergeson is a former president of the teachers' union. Both have identified themselves as Democrats during their careers (though the SPI position is nonpartisan).

As one commenter on the blog of Snohomish County's 39th District Republicans writes, "Randy Dorn could be Terry Bergeson's twin brother."

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