Failure Rates Of Minorities On WASL “Painful”

Linda Shaw, Seattle Times, September 14, 2006

When Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson showed her top staff members the ethnic breakdown of scores on last spring’s 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, she said many were practically in tears.

About three-quarters of the state’s African American students who took the 10th-grade WASL failed one or more of the three subjects they must pass to graduate—reading, writing and math. That was true for Latino students as well. Among Native Americans, about two-thirds fell short.

So did about 70 percent of students living in poverty, of which the majority are white and Asian.

All the ethnic groups scored 4 to 6 percentage points higher than last year. But Bergeson said Wednesday that the high failure rates are “tremendously painful” to her and need much more attention from OSPI, schools and the greater community.

“I need help,” she said. “I need people to think about this with me.”

Statewide, about half of the sophomores (now juniors) who took the 10th-grade WASL last spring failed to pass all three sections they’ll need to earn their diplomas by 2008. Some retook the test a second time in August, and they will have another chance this spring. If they fail twice, they can choose to demonstrate their skills through one of several approved alternatives.

Proponents hope that, by 2008, all students will be able to pass. Critics, however, question whether that will happen and say it’s not reasonable to let any one test determine whether a student graduates. And many have strong concerns that students of color will be disproportionately represented among those who fail.

Bergeson released most of the WASL scores last week, including the statewide look at how last year’s 10th-graders scored. But she talked Wednesday for the first time about the ethnic breakdowns for the class of 2008, the first class that faces the WASL as a graduation requirement.

The numbers of students of color who took the 10th-grade WASL last spring are not large. Of the 68,476 who completed the reading, writing and math sections, about 1,500 were Native American, 3,000 were black, 5,600 were Asian American or Pacific Islander, and 6,600 were Latino. About 50,700 white students took the exams.

Bergeson, however, said the state must ensure success of all students.

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The United States, she added, needs to educate all its students to high standards to keep up with other nations, which can educate just a fraction of their children, yet have more highly skilled workers than the United States.

Some say poverty is the biggest factor in the difference in scores among ethnic groups in Washington, and across the nation. Others say race plays the bigger role. Bergeson said she thinks it’s a combination of the two.

Nearly 60 percent of the students who did the worst on the WASL—failing reading, writing and math—qualified for the federal free—and reduced-price lunch program, according to OSPI. Of those who passed all three subjects, just 17 percent were in the free-lunch program.

The same pattern holds true for each ethnic group. The lower the scores, the higher the percentage of students living in poverty. Among Latinos, for example, 84 percent of the students who failed reading, writing and math are part of the federal free-lunch program.

Some say such numbers, while sobering, help illuminate a long-standing problem, and help make the case for change.

The ethnic breakdown of scores on the WASL “has brought the disparities to the forefront,” said Uriel Íñiguez, executive director of the Washington state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

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The U.S. spends more on primary and secondary education than most developed countries, yet has larger classes, lower test scores and higher dropout rates, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported.

The U.S. spent about $12,000 per student, second only to Switzerland among the 30 OECD countries based on 2003 figures, the OECD said today in its annual report on education. The U.S. outperformed only five of the 30 countries on an OECD test given to 15-year-olds, ranked 12th in high school completion rates and averaged 23 students per class, higher than the average of 21.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. ranked first among OECD nations in high school completion, said Barbara Ischinger, director for education of the Paris-based group. “This needs urgent attention as the labor market prospects of those who do not leave school with strong baseline qualifications are deteriorating,” she said.

The OECD analysis is the latest report to raise questions about the performance of U.S. public schools, five years after President George W. Bush enacted the “No Child Left Behind” law, which was designed to improve schools by requiring states to give annual tests in subjects such as math and reading and established penalties for schools that don’t meet the standards.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has credited the law with producing “more progress in the last five years than in the previous 28 years combined.” Yet international tests such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compares 15-year-olds on reading, mathematics and scientific literacy, show U.S. students performing below average.

Education Department spokesmen did not respond to phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment on the OECD report.

Not About Money

Ischinger said of the U.S. rankings, “It is not a money question,” noting that only Luxembourg spends more on its primary school students and only Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more at the secondary level.

In the previous OECD test of 15-year-olds, in 2000, the U.S. performed near the OECD average in reading and below the average in math and scientific literacy.

Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp., the world’s largest semiconductor maker, said U.S. schools don’t set high standards for students and don’t insist that they meet standards.

The U.S. could improve its schools by copying the teaching approaches in successful foreign countries, then “set the passing expectation levels consistent with where you want to be,” Barrett said in an interview.

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High Dropout Rate

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The U.S. also has a 46 percent dropout rate from college, defined as not completing a degree within six years, giving it the second-highest rate in the OECD behind only Mexico.

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