Last weekend at its Spokane convention, the state Democratic Party endorsed Randy Dorn for Superintendent of Public Instruction, giving a shot in the arm to a candidate who’s emerging as the most serious challenger to three-term incumbent Terry Bergeson. Not only is he picking up endorsements and raising money -- $28,000 in the month-and-a-half since Dorn announced, nearly a third of what Bergeson had as of the end of May -- but he is riding a wave of dissatisfaction with Bergeson. Forty-five teachers unions around the state (including Seattle's) have recently voted to express no confidence in Bergeson, or something similar, according to Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist.
A big reason why, Lindquist says, is Bergeson’s “overemphasis on high-stakes testing.”
In her 12 years in office, Bergeson has been the face of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, otherwise known as the WASL. Teachers, parents and students have long expressed criticism of the pressure-laden WASL and the way the school system has come to revolve around it. And onetime Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith Billings vied for her old seat back four years ago on an anti-WASL platform. She lost.
“This year, it’s different,” says Dorn, contending that the backlash has grown stronger.
Dorn actually helped create the WASL in the early ‘90s, when as a state Representative chairing the House Education Committee he co-sponsored the bill that brought it into being. But now, serving as the executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington, which represents classified staff, he says “we’ve gotten off track.” The WASL, typically given over a two-week period to students from 3rd grade on, eats up too much instruction time, he says. He also complains that there’s little feedback to students except whether they pass or fail, and that the math portion of the test has strayed too far from basic computation. As evidenced in part by students’ abysmal scores, he says, “WASL math has been a disaster.”
“People are frustrated,” allows Bergeson, who attributes much of the problem to federal requirements that force the state to test students almost every year, instead of in just 4th, 7th and 10th grades, as used to be the case. She says she hopes to see a new president rewrite the rules. In the mean time, she says, the WASL is changing. In response to Legislative action over the last session, her office is shortening the test. And passing the math portion of the test is no longer a high school graduation requirement, unlike the reading and writing sections.
This election will likely determine whether voters think those changes go far enough.