Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Listen to educators on the WASL


What we don't need amid the WASL tussle are more "stay the course" slogans, finger-pointing and pressure. What we need is perspective.

Turns out we've had some of that for several years. Trouble is that, at least since 2003, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction hasn't released what the ed crowd calls the "tech reports" that have warned not to use the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test as the be-all benchmark for high school graduation.

Last week, far under the radar of either Seattle or Olympia at a school board meeting in Richland, a troubling fact wriggled up out of the mud that's being slung over this contentious issue. And that word was that Riverside Publishing Co., the contractor responsible for shaping and scoring the WASL, has repeatedly warned OSPI against using the test in a high-stakes game of "Who Wants To Graduate?"

Riverside's 2000 "tech report" said that while scores maybe useful in course planning, it's crucial to "exercise extreme caution when interpreting individual reports."

And the company's 2002 report said, "Standard errors of measurement in the WASL are large enough that caution should be used when evaluating and making decisions based on individual student's scores."

We haven't been told what the "tech reports" for the years 2003-2005 reveal. And we ought to know before making a decision that, starting with the class of 2008, could result in thousands of kids giving up on school.

"Our take is that this is a disclaimer that should be out there for each and every test," Charles Haase told me. He's a fourth-grade teacher and president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "I don't know whether or not the disclaimer would have much of an influence at this point, but it should," he said.

I reached Haase this week on the road to Olympia where he and everybody's second cousin seemed to be testifying for or against the WASL and a handful of bills aimed at altering the test's looming effect. Most of the bills would allow achievement outside the WASL to count toward a cap and gown.

And that's as it should be, Shorewood High School teacher Wendy Crocker says.



Currently at her school, if kids rebuild a car or write a 500-word novel or demonstrate some other "culminating exhibition" to the satisfaction of a panel, that counts toward gaining a diploma, even if they're terrible at taking tests.

"There are kids in my class right now who won't be able to pass the WASL," Crocker said. "But they absolutely have something to contribute. They've developed the skill of showing up and turning in work on time. They're conscientious and try so hard. There are five kids right now who I know that, when I give them a test, they're not going to do well. But I also know I would hire those people to do a job."

Not every student is going to go to college, Crocker said. And even colleges today don't admit or decline applicants based on a single measure.

Still, the WASL debate has become so politicized and simplified, it has many of the adults in this state standing on either side of an Iraq war-size gap while our kids and their futures teeter on the edges.

It has become the "I believe in standards" crowd versus the "stay the course crowd," the latter insisting that those who question the WASL want to leave children behind.

In the public mind, the WASL is code for high standards and we all want those.

But, somehow, amid the rhetoric, we've got to turn the volume down enough to listen to what teachers and ed experts are saying. For instance, that states that stress a one-time test actually lower overall student achievement and raise the dropout rate. That kids who might flower with a more individualized assessment of their skills are simply nipped in the bud by high-stakes tests. And, that, when they drop off the attendance rolls, we all pay a lasting price.

Unfortunately, with accusations flying, those facts aren't easy to hear.

That's why Haase's union decided to pull its plans for a series of radio ads it had budgeted to air during these debates. "Students in the state aren't going to benefit from a bare-knuckled fight between educators and the business community (which favors the WASL," he said. "And the business community ultimately has the same goals we do -- improving student performance."

On one hand, business is understandably frustrated with education's inability to provide perfect answers to the obvious problem that only about half of our students pass the WASL on their first try. On the other hand, teachers are frustrated that the state is spending $500 less per student (adjusted for inflation) than we did when we first contemplated standards testing in the state. That ranks us 42nd in the nation.

It's a dilemma that can't be answered on a bullhorn or a bumper sticker.

Susan Paynter's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call her at 206-448-8392 or send e-mail to