PEN’s reply to John Laird of the Columbian’s article on FAMAWASL (fathers against mothers against WASL)

Opinion - Finally, an activist group worth joining
by John Laird

My inability to muster activists can be traced back to the NCAA, and I'm not talking about the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Several years ago at another newspaper I became perturbed when a fellow columnist cooingly informed her readers that, while she was away on vacation, her cat missed her. Awwwww.

She became highly incensed when I blasphemously pointed out that her cat was just a cat, nothing more. And she became downright furious when I wrote a column announcing the formation of an activist group known as "No Cats Anywhere in America" (NCAA). Of course, all hell broke loose as countless feline fetishists excoriated my group, waving clippings of newspaper stories about animal cruelty and shrieking, "See what you've caused!" After several dozen smart-alecky column notes over the next few years, I finally gave up on my NCAA.

Undaunted by that failure, I hereby announce the formation of another activist group. This one, too, is retaliatory. It's meant to compensate for all the incessant, infernal whining from a group that's much smaller and less relevant than its piercing protests would seem to indicate.

Might you be interested in joining my new group? "Fathers Against Mothers Against WASL"?

Instead of relying on a Web site and bumper stickers, FAMAWASL relies on sheer logic. To join, you simply need to repeat the Official FAMAWASL Creed:

* I believe that any kid who thinks Elvis Presley was named after Elvis Costello should not receive a high school diploma.

* I believe in diversity. I celebrate the fact that, just as fathers may join Mothers Against WASL, mothers may join my FAMAWASL.

* I believe that taxpayers deserve proof that schools are succeeding, and that the Washington Assessment of Student Learning is a good, albeit imperfect, tool for measuring that success.

* I believe that requiring a 12th-grader who has been passing tests for 12 years to pass a 10th-grade WASL in order to receive a high school diploma is fair and reasonable.

* I believe that this requirement is even more reasonable when school officials bend over backward trying to help that student with remedial classes and multiple re-takes of the WASL.

* I believe that the question, "What are you going to do about that failing grade?" should not be directed first to a teacher or a principal or a counselor or a coach or a superintendent or a school board member or bus driver or a cafeteria worker or a school janitor. It should be directed first to the failing student.

* I believe that when a kid ditches a class, the parent should not barge into the school office or classroom and start acting belligerent. I believe the parent should barge into the student's bedroom, turn off the video game, wake up the student and start acting belligerent.

* I believe that whenever we raise the academic bar for students, they always rise to meet those greater expectations. Call it evolution or creationism, but this is what makes our kids better than the chimpanzees' kids.

* I believe that not all students are meant to receive a high school diploma. If a 100 percent graduation rate is our goal, then we might as well stop giving all tests in schools and start handing out diplomas like breath mints.

* I believe social promotion is a social disease.

* I believe that when we give a diploma (and I do mean "give") to a student who doesn't deserve one, it's grossly unfair and insulting to every hard-working student who does deserve one.

* I believe the first responsibility for passing the WASL belongs to the child, the second responsibility belongs to the parent and all other responsibilities don't matter nearly as much as those two.

* I believe that parents who whimper, "Some kids just aren't good test-takers," might have a point. Still, if those same kids can't pass a driver's test, they won't become drivers; if they can't pass the bar exam, they won't become lawyers; and if they can't pass an eye test, they won't become jet-fighter pilots. Regardless, they'll find a way to survive.

* I believe that harsh as it might sound one of the best counseling tactics that parents and teachers can use for students is expressed in the old Joan Rivers line: "Oh, grow up!"

John Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor.


Dear Mr. Laird,

PEN/MAW appreciates the open debate on your editorial pages. Please accept and publish the following op ed as our rebuttal to your recent column on starting FAMAWASL. You have my permission to publish it in both the print edition and the online Columbian.

Thank you.

Juanita Doyon, Director
Parent Empowerment Network


Gandhi said, “First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; [then editorial page editors write attack pieces]; then you win!” Thank you, Mr. Laird. You've given Mothers Against WASL a sign.

When I attended public high school in the 1970’s, I learned important lessons about propaganda. I hope today’s public schools are teaching these same lessons, but I fear they have been set aside for WASL prep. Today’s propaganda of the Washington Roundtable and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, most often expressed through their conduit of editorial boards, is that those of us fighting the test (including Mothers Against WASL and its organizing nonprofit, Parent Empowerment Network (PEN)) are against high standards and expectations for students. Bologna!

Obviously, there is a large number of editorial boards in the state that don't understand the difference between the standards and the measurement of those standards. WASL is a flawed measurement. That is why we call ourselves, Mothers Against WASL. If we were against standards, we would use a different name, like Mothers Against EALRS (Essential Academic Learning Requirements). Isn't it interesting that we “whining mothers” know the difference? We hold ourselves and our children to a high standard of knowledge acquisition.

Further study of half truths du jour, reveals the WASLholics line of choice: “Students are graduating without being able to read.” Was this not the rallying cry of the Business Roundtable 13 years ago when standards-based, test-‘em-to-death education reform was born? If Johnny and Mary still can't read, what about WASL is working, after an outpouring of hundreds of millions of dollars on WASL prep?

Our current state superintendent, who was endorsed by this paper’s editorial board, has presided over state education reform for all of those 13 years, first as the head of the Commission on Student Learning and then as superintendent. She most recently used the “kids can't read” line in her annual “state of education” speech. I don't know of any parent who would admit 13 years of failure in a child’s life with the level of chutzpa that
Terry Bergeson has displayed in admitting this huge failure of her WASL plan.

Dr. Linda Mabry, WSU Vancouver, suggests the WASL misrepresents our students. “…we have had the highest SAT scores for two consecutive years among those
states in which more than half of high school students take the SAT, yet only about a third of these same students are scored as proficient on the state’s standards-based test… Does this not suggest measurement error somewhere?”

Since the inception of widespread high-school exit exams in the 1990s, several of the 25 states that originally signed on to the philosophy of high-sakes testing have backed away from using a single test to determine graduation. Of those clinging to a single test as their high school gatekeeper, the majority have seen a decline in graduation rate. The current graduation rate in Washington State is just 67 percent. Must Washington repeat the mistakes of other states that have increased dropout rates with their single test policies?

In our quest for true accountability shared by the state, school districts, teachers, parents, and students, PEN is working with educational experts throughout the country. We have been in contact with the state Education Commissioner of Nebraska, Dr. Doug Christensen, and are looking at his state’s School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS). Dr. Christensen writes, “…things that involve state testing, high-stakes accountability and punitive accountability are not right, will not do us any good and will not get us where we want to go. In fact, there is a potential to do great harm to children.”

Washington’s 13 years of test-based accountability has proven Dr. Christensen’s statement true. After 13 years of reform affecting an entire generation of children, the math and reading skills of our students have apparently not improved one iota. In fact, students who need the most help have been ignored in the pursuit of improved WASL pass rates. Students in the lower quartile are passed over because they have no chance to bring up the average. PEN calls this “educational triage.” Put another way, it is discrimination and educational abuse.

— John Laird and Juanita Doyon