School chief opponents face off in Kennewick

KENNEWICK -- Washington's top school official and her challenger in the November election painted contrasting pictures of progress in the state education system during stops Tuesday in Kennewick.

Terry Bergeson, who's been superintendent of public instruction about 12 years, said Washington now has focused academic standards and that students perform at the highest levels nationally.

Her opponent, Randy Dorn, executive director of Public School Employees of Washington, said the state test given to measure student learning needs to be replaced to fulfill the goal of landmark education reform legislation of 1993.

Bergeson and Dorn sparred over education issues during a lunchtime forum put on by the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce. They also met with the Herald's editorial board Tuesday morning.

The chamber forum drew about 60 people, and most of the questions were about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. That's the state test students take in grades three to eight and high school.

Dorn said it needs to be replaced with something shorter, more diagnostic and tied to technology. The former state legislator was a sponsor of the reform legislation that led to the WASL, but the actual test has fallen short of the reform's intent, he said.

"I think education should be about hope, opportunity and opening doors. Somehow we got off track," Dorn said.

He said writing education in the state is in good shape.

Bergeson said flaws in the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- including that it's too focused on punishment -- are taking a toll on educators. She's calling for changes in the law.

Apart from that, the state's assessment system is reasonable and students are making gains, she said.

"We need to make sure that every student is on track with the core skills they need to make a living and make a life," Bergeson said.

The test is being shortened for elementary and middle school students.

The Class of 2008, which graduated in June, was the first required to pass the WASL in reading and writing or an approved alternative to graduate from high school.

About 93 percent of students in the class did that, the state reported this summer. About 69 percent passed the WASL in reading, writing and math.

It was far from the disaster some had predicted, Bergeson told the Herald editorial board. That class is well prepared for the future, she said.

She also cited the state's high SAT scores.

Bergeson acknowledged problems in math education in the state. Math scores on the WASL have lagged and the requirement that students pass the exam in that subject to get a high school diploma was pushed back while math standards were overhauled.

The math WASL is being phased out and will be replaced with end-of-course exams.

New, more balanced math standards now are in place, Bergeson said.

Dorn told the editorial board he doesn't think the new standards are good enough.

He said Bergeson has had more than a decade to make improvements in education in Washington and it's time for a change in leadership. More elected officials and education groups are willing to work with him than with Bergeson, he said.

The two agreed the school funding system needs to be fixed, and they also fielded questions on career and technical education, the role of school boards and the importance of elective offerings.

w On the Net: terrybergeson2008.com and www.randydorn2008.com.