Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

These guys ought to take the WASL

The Seattle P-I has an Associated Press article about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning this morning in which several "standards" proponents are quoted as being critical of legislation that allows alternatives and delays use of the math and science portions of test as a graduation requirement until 2013.

Representative Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City: "It took us 14 years to get to this point and then it blew up at the end...It was a cut-and-paste job over political fear."

Marc Frazier, Vice President of the Washington Roundtable (a business group): "The question is: Do we have state standards or not?

Steve Maggi of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation: "said he was happy with the Legislature's plan to take another look at math standards, but he doesn't think lawmakers should 'raise the white flag' over graduation exams."

Here's my rhetorical question: Have any of these guys ever taken the WASL themselves? (The answer: of course not). I don't think they really understand how the WASL affects teachers, students, and course curriculum.

Unlike most Washingtonians, I have taken the WASL. And not just once, but several times - in fourth, seventh, and tenth grades. I also seem to recall that our eighth grade class took the science portion in eighth grade (it didn't count, but we were participating in a pilot rollout of that section).

I myself didn't find the WASL to be very difficult - I easily passed all the tests, and I remember that my 10th grade writing score was perfect. I received congratulatory letters from Governor Locke. But my experience has been the exception, not the rule. The WASL was stressful and nerve wracking for many of my peers.

Even those of us who did well didn't enjoy it. It felt like a distraction - and it was. We're talking about hours upon hours of staring at gray paper booklets and marking them up with pencils, then sitting quietly and waiting for everyone else to finish. And if on a test day you were sick and couldn't come to school, you'd likely end up missing class to make it up later.

School administrators across the state have reallocated resources to help students prepare for the WASL, and valuable programs - arts, humanities, music, career preparedness - have suffered. Some elementary schools have cut back recess.

I remember spending entire class periods in my tenth grade honors courses in the months before, just talking about the WASL and the phase in of the district's own standards assessments (such as the Culminating Project). We had all kinds of questions and our teachers tried to answer them as best they could.

So on many days, we'd come into class, and instead of actually strengthening our reading comprehension skills or sharpening our mathematics faculty, we were learning about the WASL.

I firmly believe that legislators and the WASL's proponents (chiefly business leaders) should take the tenth grade test themselves so they know what it's like. They should be brought into an actual classroom in an actual high school and be given each portion to complete, day after day. They need to get a taste for the WASL and the testing environment.

It would certainly be interesting to see how many of them could manage to earn a passing score on every single section.

I personally don't believe the WASL is a very good assessment of a student's readiness for his or her future life and career - and NPI believes it should not be a graduation requirement because one test is a poor method of judging a child's entire academic history. (We also oppose its use to make decisions about grade retention or program options).

The WASL was originally implemented under the guise of reform, but it has created a significant number of new problems. It hasn't helped that the Legislature has been underfunding education in recent bienniums (although progress was certainly made in the 2007 session). The state needs to develop a better system for measuring what students have learned. Relying on a high stakes test is a mistake.

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