Another good use for the WASL

Guest Columnist

Understandably, a lot of attention is being focused on the WASL test (Washington Assessment of Student Learning). The test is designed to ensure that students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in life.

This is the first class of 10th graders who must pass the WASL in order to graduate. Some argue the test is too tough, while others say that by testing skills that are on an 8th grade level elsewhere in the world, it’s not tough enough.

Almost overlooked in this argument are the students who don’t graduate at all.

A recent study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the publishers of Education Week magazine found that almost one-third of American students never graduate from high school. In Washington state, it’s even worse.

Even though we have fewer students in poverty, fewer English-language learners and fewer special-education students than the national average, our graduation rate is slightly below the national average.

The personal, social and economic costs of failing to graduate from high school are enormous.

According to a study presented last year at Columbia University:

* Over a lifetime, an 18-year-old dropout earns $260,000 less than a high-school graduate and contributes $60,000 less in tax revenue.

* High-school graduates live longer, are healthier and are less likely to use publicly financed health care.

* Adults who lack a high-school diploma are at greater risk of being on public assistance. Taxpayers would save $8 to $10 billion a year if all the dropouts currently receiving public assistance had graduated from high school.

So, what’s the answer? This is where the WASL comes in.

Based on scores from its fourth- and seventh-grade tests, the WASL can serve as an early warning system, identifying the students who need extra attention. Using individually-focused initiatives like the VOICE (Volunteers of Issaquah Changing Education) program in Issaquah. VOICE began in 2004 to use community volunteers as mentors and is privately funded by parents, businesses and community members.

Currently, 50 mentors are working with 57 students in the Issaquah school system. The volunteers are carefully matched with their students and are encouraged to stay with that student from elementary school to high school.

While programs like VOICE are extremely important and valuable, ultimately it is parents, grandparents, relatives and friends who make the biggest difference.

Regardless of how you feel about the WASL, we all want our students to be more successful. Let’s use the WASL tests in the fourth and seventh grades to highlight those faltering students; then we can organize volunteers and work with parents in our communities to mentor them.

Making sure these students graduate from high school will be an investment in their future and ours. Besides, it is just the right thing to do.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.