Monday, September 8, 2003


WASL examinations flunk on many levels

Donald C. Orlich - Special to The Spokesman-Review

School reform in Washington and 49 other states has been reduced to a single high-stakes test. Nearly $1 billion has been spent on reform by the Washington Legislature since 1993. The WASL -- for Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- costs over $100 million and the current contract with Riverside Publishing Company accounts for a paltry $61.67 million. The state superintendent of public instruction has a $200 million reform slush fund to advocate the WASL, with none of that funding supporting teachers' classrooms, student services, school programs, instructional materials, new books or teacher education.

The WASL is given each spring to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders in the areas of reading, writing, listening and mathematics. Science WASL results will be announced for grades 5, 8 and 10 this fall. It must be noted that the science pilot test scores have been kept secret for the past three years. One must ask, "why?"

But what did we learn from the spring 2003 WASL administration?

The vast majority of children from low-income families, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced lunch, did not meet the standard. That is, they failed.

Up to 96 percent of children classified as being in "special education" did not meet the standard. They failed.

Hispanic children tend not to meet standard.

Migrant children at all levels tended to fail all WASL areas being tested.

Examining all data sets for the 222,000-plus fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders taking the WASL, only one in three met the standard in all four subjects being assessed.

Breaking it down by ethnic groups, Asian children led in math, while white children lead all other ethnic groups -- American Indian, black and Hispanic.

Seventh-graders tended to score rather poorly compared with fourth-graders, while grade 10 results were mixed, showing increases and decreases from previous years.

The WASL test items are allegedly keyed to the state standards called "Essential Academic Learning Requirements," or EALRs. When the WASL is compared with the EALRs, some interesting artifacts appear. At least 12 of the mathematics standards for grades 4, 7, and 10 are identical. Even the Stanford Research Institute study of 2002 concluded that the seventh-grade WASL math test is more difficult than the 10th-grade WASL math test.

Are fourth-graders being prepared with those touted 21st century skills to work for the U.S. Bureau of the Census? Writers of the 2003 fourth-grade WASL think so. Questions on the test required fourth-graders to design surveys to solve problems being posed. (Being the author of the book "Designing Sensible Surveys I," can assure you that fourth- graders are not really up to it.)

Probability problems are scattered throughout the test. Do you have a clue what a "function machine" is? I don't. Fourth-graders are expected to write a rule to use one.

Do you remember "measures of central tendency" -- mean, median and mode? Fourth-graders are expected to apply those concepts that are taught in statistics.

Do we have "world class standards" or do we have asinine ones? Take your pick.

Several studies have analyzed the WASL, but I shall summarize mainly from the Washington Education Association January 2003 report the following six major deficiencies of the WASL.

There are no predictive validity studies relating to the WASL.

There is a high correlation between the WASL math tests and the WASL reading tests. This could account for almost one-half of the math score.

Subjective scoring leads to arbitrary decisions. There can be a 28.9 percent chance that a child has had his or her test incorrectly scored.

The arbitrary standard will be raised each year, eventually reaching 100 percent.

Correct answers are determined after students' answers are read.

On some questions, students can earn full points, even if they get the wrong answer.

The WASL has appearances of a technical disaster.

Do you know that all student tests are shredded? In Nevada, Minnesota and New York City, scorer errors were common. Your child could be kept from graduating because of incorrect scoring and you have no recourse. You lose your Fifth Amendment rights of due process in school reform.

With passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 95 percent of all children in all categories -- special education, non-English speakerrs and the like -- must pass 95 percent of all WASL tests or either the federal government or private contractors will confiscate local communities' public schools.

There is a ray of hope. The NAACP in Florida filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, charging that the Florida test (similar to the WASL) is discriminatory. Our attorney general should do this for the children in the Evergreen State. Only the future of your child is at stake.

Former Gov. Booth Gardner cautioned against using the WASL for competition and rankings and advised that, "If you want an academic contest between schools, then hold a tournament."

• Donald C. Orlich of Pullman is a professor emeritus at Washington State University.