When Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson showed her top staff members the ethnic breakdown of scores on last spring's 10th-grade...

When Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson showed her top staff members the ethnic breakdown of scores on last spring’s 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, she said many were practically in tears.

About three-quarters of the state’s African American students who took the 10th-grade WASL failed one or more of the three subjects they must pass to graduate — reading, writing and math. That was true for Latino students as well. Among Native Americans, about two-thirds fell short.

So did about 70 percent of students living in poverty, of which the majority are white and Asian.

All the ethnic groups scored 4 to 6 percentage points higher than last year. But Bergeson said Wednesday that the high failure rates are “tremendously painful” to her and need much more attention from OSPI, schools and the greater community.

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“I need help,” she said. “I need people to think about this with me.”

Statewide, about half of the sophomores (now juniors) who took the 10th-grade WASL last spring failed to pass all three sections they’ll need to earn their diplomas by 2008. Some retook the test a second time in August, and they will have another chance this spring. If they fail twice, they can choose to demonstrate their skills through one of several approved alternatives.

Proponents hope that, by 2008, all students will be able to pass. Critics, however, question whether that will happen and say it’s not reasonable to let any one test determine whether a student graduates. And many have strong concerns that students of color will be disproportionately represented among those who fail.

Bergeson released most of the WASL scores last week, including the statewide look at how last year’s 10th-graders scored. But she talked Wednesday for the first time about the ethnic breakdowns for the class of 2008, the first class that faces the WASL as a graduation requirement.

The numbers of students of color who took the 10th-grade WASL last spring are not large. Of the 68,476 who completed the reading, writing and math sections, about 1,500 were Native American, 3,000 were black, 5,600 were Asian American or Pacific Islander, and 6,600 were Latino. About 50,700 white students took the exams.

Bergeson, however, said the state must ensure success of all students.

“These are kids who have just as much capability,” she said. But she said they need more help than they’ve received — from schools and the greater community. Too many, she said, come from families who face difficult economic circumstances, and lose hope.

The United States, she added, needs to educate all its students to high standards to keep up with other nations, which can educate just a fraction of their children, yet have more highly skilled workers than the United States.

Some say poverty is the biggest factor in the difference in scores among ethnic groups in Washington, and across the nation. Others say race plays the bigger role. Bergeson said she thinks it’s a combination of the two.

Nearly 60 percent of the students who did the worst on the WASL — failing reading, writing and math — qualified for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, according to OSPI. Of those who passed all three subjects, just 17 percent were in the free-lunch program.

The same pattern holds true for each ethnic group. The lower the scores, the higher the percentage of students living in poverty. Among Latinos, for example, 84 percent of the students who failed reading, writing and math are part of the federal free-lunch program.

Some say such numbers, while sobering, help illuminate a long-standing problem, and help make the case for change.

The ethnic breakdown of scores on the WASL “has brought the disparities to the forefront,” said Uriel Íñiguez, executive director of the Washington state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

“Now that we have the picture,” he added, “we need to put resources where they’re needed.”

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, said the lingering achievement gap reinforces her concerns about whether it’s fair to require students to pass the WASL to graduate.

Bergeson, however, says she draws hope from the state’s reading scores, where the achievement gap has been narrowing. She plans to come up with a plan for what OSPI can do, but it’s also going to take help from the greater community.

She wants assistance from businesses, churches and community groups. School districts with a large number of students living in poverty should not be shy about asking for more help, she said.

“People are going to have to care about this,” she said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com