Vashon’s WASL scores offer mixed picture

The district’s students improved in some areas, but fell in others.

Vashon Island School District’s standardized test results came in last week, revealing strong gains as well as losses across the board, a mixed picture for a district that prides itself for its strong academic achievements.

“I think we’re doing well, but I think we can do better,” said Terry Lindquist, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District (VISD). “We owe it to these kids to do better.”

The WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) is a standardized test, mandatory for all students in grades three through eight and 10 in Washington. Students in the state must pass its reading and writing portions to graduate from high school. Many educators and parents consider WASL scores a barometer for student progress and academic achievement.

Vashon’s public school students consistently scored higher on the 2007-2008 WASL than the state average at all grades tested and in all subjects — reading, writing, math and science.

The only exception is fifth-grade science, where 42.7 percent of Island students met or exceeded the testing standard. The state average was 42.9 percent.

“We’re at least in the top third in the state in almost every area that’s tested, and I’m very proud of that,” Lindquist said.

But when compared against its own strong record over the last several years, the district also posted some declines.

The 2007-2008 scores, viewed alongside scores from the previous year, show a few standout categories, both good and bad.

But it’s tough to find an overarching trend in the district’s scores in the past few years.

Some, like fourth-grade writing and sixth-grade reading, jumped 9 percent from 2006-2007 to 2007-2008. An even bigger increase of 13 percent was made in 10th-grade science.

But seventh-grade writing fell almost 10 percent in the same time frame. Even worse, seventh-grade reading dropped 16 percent.

The lowest raw scores were in science. Only fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders are tested in the subject, and although they all outscored the state average, Vashon students in fifth- and eighth-grades scored worse this year than last year.

The drops, from 46.8 to 42.7 percent in fifth-grade and 61.5 to 58.1 percent in eighth-grade, are not huge, but are still cause for concern among officials.

“I have for several years been concerned about our lack of progress in science,” said Bob Hennessey, school board chair. “Scores are not getting better and in fact have seen declines over a number of years.”

Lindquist explained the district is in the midst of “aligning” its science curriculum, which should improve the classroom content and, hopefully, WASL scores as well.

To align the curriculum, district staff will determine the appropriate “scope and sequence” — the range of topics to be covered and the order in which they’ll be taught — for the science curriculum at each grade level, he said.

After alignment, the science program will “stairstep” — each grade’s science program will feed into the next, he said.

“Maybe our kids are getting great science education, it’s just not WASL science education,” said school board member John “Oz” Osborne, who also agreed that the alignment now under way will improve the district’s science program. “Science has always been kind of a problem for Washington state, and Vashon is no exception.”

Both Hennessey and Lindquist also said they would address the dramatic declines in seventh-grade reading and writing scores.

Hennessey said Monday he planned to discuss the matter with Lindquist and other district staff to determine a possible cause for that and other drops in WASL scores.

“Reading and writing are two subject areas that we’ve typically done very well in, and it’s very concerning to me that we would see a decline this past year,” he said.

Lindquist has already spoken with McMurray Middle School Principal Greg Allison about the disheartening seventh-grade scores.

“This is a problem that we own,” he said. “We’re well aware of it. It’s an area we’ll pay attention to.”

Allison said he and staff members are in the process of analyzing the data to determine possible causes for the nine- to 16-point drops in achievement.

He said McMurray staff planned to focus on literacy programs for individual students and groups this year, including “workshops for students who didn’t meet standards in any of the grades.”

“We’re hopeful to do some key interventions,” Allison said. “There’s a whole host of things in looking at the scores that we use to guide our intvertions. I think it’s a blip in that particular grade level.”

He added that “a huge majority” of the seventh-graders who did not meet the testing standard (scoring less than nine out of 12-point scale) missed doing so by one point.

“We want to help those students take just that one small step towards meeting that standard,” Allison said. “They were just right on the border. That’s the good news, I guess.”

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