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Eye On Olympia

WASL: Still a lightning rod atop the capitol dome…

The state’s Parent-Teachers Association held its annual convention in Seatac last week, drawing more than 1,000 people from across the state. Here are some highlights from a panel discussion on a topic that’s sure to dominate the five-way race for state superintendent of public instruction this summer: the controversial Washington Assessment of Student Learning test.

The WASL is now a “high-stakes” test, meaning that the Class of 2008 is supposed to pass parts of it – or otherwise show they know the material – to get a high school diploma. But the test remains a lightning rod, with many educators saying it now overshadows other important aspects of education.

“It’s unfortunate that the test has become the poster child of all the things that maybe aren’t working in this system,” said state assistant superintendent Joe Willhoft. Regardless of the test, he said, schools need more resources and tools to improve instruction.

“It’s as if we have taken our temperature and noticed we had a fever, and now we’re trying to blame the thermometer,” said communications consultant David Fisher. He argued that the debate over the test shouldn’t eclipse the need for high standards and accountability.

But despite a “menu” of alternative assessments for kids who cannot pass the WASL, “Students do not experience it as a menu,” said Yelm high school teacher Lester Krupp. “They experience it as increasing confusion and pressure…It just adds to the likelihood they’ll be overwhelmed.”

Spokane Education Association president Maureen Ramos cited Spokane’s success bringing up test scores at schools with even very-low-income students. How? By changing the curriculum, training teachers, and forging a coordinated plan to improve.

Yes, Ramos said, schools need an accountability system. But it’s a mistake, she feels, to pin so much on the WASL. Kids are exhausted, she said, and the pressure leaves some in tears. It’s unfair to children struggling to learn English, she said, and the high-pressure testing often doesn’t reflect what a child really knows.

“The WASL has overrun its premise,” she said.


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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