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NCLB Outrages

Students Take a Hostage--WASL

Ohanian Comment: Nationwide, NCLB requirements for 95% participation on state tests means students can:

a) create havoc
b) have a voice in their academic program
c) take part in a democratic revolution
d) all of the above


Keep the honors courses or the WASL test gets it. That's the message some of Foss High School's high-achieving 10th-graders plan to give school board members tonight.

Some of the best and brightest at Foss are threatening to boycott the state WASL exam unless the Tacoma School Board promises to keep preparatory classes for Foss' prestigious program for college-bound students.

Foss Principal Sharon Schauss has said the school next year will again offer preparatory English and history classes for ninth- and 10th-graders who are aiming for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

But Foss sophomores Masumi Hayashi-Smith and Austin Young, who are organizing the protest, want a guarantee from the school board that the courses will be offered next year and beyond.

They've collected at least 100 signatures from fellow 10th-graders, who vow to skip the Washington Assessment of Student Learning next month unless the board adopts a resolution mandating Foss keep the "pre-IB" program.

Most of the signers are among the 120 sophomores who take pre-IB English or history classes at Foss, Hayashi-Smith and Young said. Their boycott would cause Foss scores on the WASL test to plummet, making a large statement, the students said.

"Due to the past history with this (Foss) administration, trust has been a very big issue," Hayashi-Smith said. "Instead of placing our trust in Mrs. Schauss' word, we have decided to put our trust in a school board mandate."

Schauss said she's encouraging the students to take the test, which is administered at the high school level to sophomores.

"They score well. I don't dispute that," she said of the pre-IB students. "I'm trying to prepare all my other students to do better, to score higher on the WASL. I can't do that if I don't provide other students challenging instruction."

A small percentage of students opt out of the statewide WASL each year to register opposition to the test. But the Foss students' tactic is fairly new, as WASL boycotts rarely have been used to obtain results unrelated to testing.

In one case, parents of high-achieving students in the Seattle School District's Spectrum program threatened last fall to have their children boycott the WASL.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools and districts to achieve certain WASL scores each year or risk being labeled as needing improvement. But only schools receiving federal Title I funding for low-income students are subject to other sanctions; Foss isn't a Title I school.

The controversy at Foss has erupted as staff members attempt to restructure the 1,800-student school into small academies. Part of the Washington State Achievers program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the effort aims to boost student success in college by providing more personalized and rigorous instruction in high school.

Trying to design the academies has been a challenging and often stressful task.

"Staff morale has been very low," said teacher John Ruby. "The grant's become a distraction. There are three major things a high school needs to run efficiently. One is a master schedule, one is classroom attendance and one is effective discipline. The grant has taken away from all those things."

The situation became so tense that a facilitator from the Washington Education Association started working this year with a group of teachers and administrators developing the academies.

"Staff are really working together," Schauss said. "You can't have change without some disagreements."

Foss already was home to the highly touted IB program, which offers juniors and seniors demanding courses emphasizing critical thinking and exposure to a variety of viewpoints. It also offers separate preparatory courses to ninth- and 10th-graders who plan to enter the IB program.

The current concerns echo those of last year's parents and students. They were troubled by early plans to mix students of differing abilities and motivation levels in the pre-IB classes.

In response, the school agreed to keep teaching the two subjects separately to this year's pre-IB ninth- and 10th-graders.

Plans for next year call for the school's four academies to each offer preparatory English and history classes for freshmen and sophomores, Schauss said. The English course name will change from pre-IB to "honors" English, and what's taught in the class will be better defined.

Academy staff members will decide whether to mix students of different abilities, Schauss said.

"For students who choose to take the most rigorous work, we will have that in each academy," she said.

Schauss said the IB program will expand because more students are becoming academically prepared for it.

"If I don't look at how we teach the curriculum, how we develop critical writers, thinkers, and literate people in math and reading, my WASL scores will never go up," she said. "I truly believe all of my students can achieve more."

Though the changes won't directly affect this year's 10th-graders, sophomore Young said he's concerned about the long-term viability of the IB program itself. Many pre-IB students live outside the Foss attendance area but came to Foss for the IB program.

"If they get rid of the pre-IB program, students would want to go to another school," Young said, adding that could cause the program to lose class offerings.

The pre-IB students, who tend to do well in their studies, figure they would do well on the test if they took it.

"As a group we do want to take the WASL," said Hayashi-Smith, who lives in University Place. ''Right now we feel this is the only way of getting our voice heard."

The young petition organizers might have a tough time getting the results they want. Though the board will accept the petition, it doesn't get involved in daily school operations, such as determining which classes to offer, board President Willie Stewart said.

— Debby Abe
The News Tribune
2004-03-26


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