November 7, 2008 in City

WASL facing another go-round

New schools boss pledged overhaul during campaign
By The Spokesman-Review

Sorry, kids. Tests are here to stay.

Multiple-choice, true-and-false, show-your-work, essay – none of them will be going away.

But changes are coming to the King Kong of all tests, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. And the changes are likely to be more dramatic as a result of Tuesday’s election.

Exactly how it shakes out remains to be seen. But if you’re in elementary or middle school, you can count on spending much less time on the WASL starting this year – a change that was established two months before the election, by soon-to-be-former Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson.

High school sophomores will almost certainly see a shorter test, too, although maybe not soon enough for the class of 2011, this year’s sophomores. In fact, there’s a good chance the WASL will be replaced entirely.

And those developments are directly a result of the election.

“The WASL as it has been constructed is the wrong assessment tool,” said Robert Harkin, who chaired Randy Dorn’s campaign to replace Bergeson. “It’s way too expensive … It drives too many curriculum decisions” and takes too much time.

Dorn, a former teacher, principal and legislator, made replacing or overhauling the WASL the cornerstone of his campaign. He was declared the winner Thursday in a tight race against Bergeson, a three-term incumbent who conceded after ballot counts showed Dorn’s lead widening.

Harkin said Dorn will be looking at other states’ tests to see which make sense for Washington, a process that should take about a year. In the meantime, Harkin said, the new schools chief will take steps to further shorten the existing test.

But there’s one change WASL opponents would like to see that Dorn won’t support. Harkin said his boss disagrees with those who say students shouldn’t have to pass a standardized test in order to graduate. (But he would continue to offer alternatives – like major graduation projects – for students who prefer other ways of showing they have learned everything that’s expected of them.)

Some legislators and many educators feel otherwise.

Maureen Ramos, president of the Spokane Education Association, said she’d like to see the state offer incentives for passing the test, rather than dishing out punishment to those who don’t. She thinks parents might make homework a higher priority if their kids could earn a $4,000 college scholarship by passing the test, as is done in Michigan.

Ramos said the program could be funded in part by money saved by using a test that’s easier to administer and grade than the WASL, which is expected to cost $47 million this school year.

Gov. Chris Gregoire also is expected to oppose any effort to eliminate testing as a graduation requirement.

Gregoire last year reluctantly delayed until 2013 a requirement that students pass the math and science portions of the WASL – a step taken because students are still doing so poorly on those tests. The math WASL that sophomores take is scheduled to be replaced by other tests starting with the class of 2014 (kids who are now in seventh grade).

But Gregoire vetoed portions of the same bill that would have offered more alternatives to taking the WASL.

The Washington Roundtable, a business group that lobbies for higher math standards, opposed the delay in math and science requirements. Roundtable President Steve Mullin said Thursday that the group is all in favor of saving time and money – but not if it means using a test that’s less “robust” than the WASL.

“I think the advantage of Washington’s test is it’s not a bubble test” but one that makes students write out their answers, show their work and write essays, Mullin said. “And that does take longer” to administer as well as grade.

Serving as a backdrop to the WASL discussion is the question of what will happen to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, now that Sen. Barack Obama has been elected president. Obama has called for reforming the act, which is up for renewal.

The act, which was championed by President Bush and passed by Congress in 2002, set a goal of having every child proficient at math and reading by 2014. It uses scores on each state’s standardized tests as the yardstick. Districts face sanctions if they continually fail to meet “adequate yearly progress.”

Critics of No Child Left Behind raise many of the same complaints as those who oppose the WASL – that schools put too much focus on testing, and have little time for subjects like social studies and the arts. Some in Congress say the federal government has not provided schools with the money they need to meet the act’s goals.

The National Education Association supports 145 bills to revise the act, including three introduced by Obama, two by Sen Patty Murray, D-Wash., and one by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Crapo’s bill calls for assessments that are “more accurate and fair” for students still learning English or those with disabilities, and to take more into account than just test scores before determining that a school has fallen short. Murray proposes billions more in funding for schools.

Murray’s spokesman, Matt McAlvanah, said that while many of those bills may be resubmitted, there will likely be “a more comprehensive singular effort” to reform the act after Obama’s in office.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email