SEATTLE — It may be the most hated test in Washington history. But the Washington Assessment of Student Learning also has contributed to student achievement and has helped teachers focus on state education goals, according to a study released Wednesday.
An in-depth exploration of six school districts across the state by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy found that the WASL and the standards on which the statewide test is based have had a significant impact on what is being taught in Washington classrooms.
Teachers think the extended-response format of the WASL has helped students do a better job of explaining the thinking behind their answers and become better writers, the study says. They do not believe the WASL has stifled their creativity.
The teachers also credit the WASL with bringing extra help to students who may have been ignored in the past, like those learning English for the first time and kids in special education.
Many of the study participants would like to see state education officials improve the WASL rather than replace it with a new test, as schools Superintendent Randy Dorn has promised to do.
They said uncertainty about the future of the WASL and media reports about changing in statewide assessment have confused their students and encouraged some to stop taking testing seriously.
The researchers acknowledge, however, that the study, which is based on research conducted from January to April 2009, has its flaws.
In particular, only six schools in six school districts were studied, 15 classes were observed, and 68 teachers, 30 students and 29 parents were interviewed. The center acknowledges the schools chosen may not represent the experience of all Washington public schools or the demographics of its student population.
A spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union said the report does not agree with the union’s most recent survey data, which included information from teachers at many of the state’s 2,000 schools.
“More than three-quarters of them support replacing the WASL with a test that provides … diagnostic information about their students in a timely way that they can use to improve student achievement,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association.
The WEA is in favor of high standards, and its members teach to the standards. Their issue is with the WASL and not the standards, Wood said.
Teachers think the WASL takes too much time away from classroom learning, that it takes too long for the results to get back to teachers and students, and that the information provided to teachers is not particularly helpful.
“Whether it’s called the WASL or something else, they’ve been calling for changes for a long time,” Wood said.
New statewide tests to replace the WASL are in development and students will try them out this spring, but Alan Berke, deputy superintendent of public instruction, wants to make sure people understand that the state’s high standards are not going away.
Berke said he found the center’s report interesting and their findings agreed with much of the anecdotal information he has heard from teachers and administrators.
“It’s a valuable piece of research that’s worth looking at,” he said.
He questioned, however, if the comments about keeping the WASL were a majority opinion.
“Clearly the people of the state of Washington spoke loudly when they elected Randy Dorn to be superintendent of public instruction,” Berke said. Dorn campaigned on a platform to replace the WASL with shorter exams that could be scored more quickly, and that’s what the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is working to deliver.