"Wading into the WASL War"

by Juanita Doyon



When they said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I don't think they were talking about a standardized test for a 4th grader.

Unfortunately, in Washington State, there is no appreciation on the part of state officials for the feelings of nine-year-olds, or for the feelings of the adults who work with and teach them, for that matter.  If the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) doesn't kill them, it will make them stronger-- or make them cry and give up.

In Washington, as in most of the rest of the country, self-esteem has become a dirty concept, when it is recognized as a concept at all.  But this wasn't the case in my children's third grade class.  My twins, Carmen and Samuel, had been working on practice problems for the newly created WASL.  Being one of those moms who lives at school often has its advantages, and I was helping their teacher run copies when he told me, out of true concern, that Carmen had been crying during practice for the state math test.  I guess I had forgotten to tell Carmen that there's no crying in math -- til you get to algebra.  Oops, this was algebra!

Here, we could get into all kinds of philosophical debate about old math, new math, new, new math, hands on math, back-to-basics, manipulatives and the memorization of times tables as the square root of all evil.  Then we could use a branching exercise to traverse whole darn reading and the five-paragraph essay, but I don't really care about all that.

I'm one of those parents who couldn't care less what brand of math you teach my kid as long as you don't make her cry-- and as long as I can understand the homework at least through 3rd grade.  Suffice it to say, whatever the problem was, my daughter was not developmentally ready or educationally prepared to handle it.  Putting a hardworking, teacher-pleasing eight-year-old in front of a math problem with a big blank space for "explain your answer using pictures and words," and letting her have as much time as she wants to cry over it, is not cool!  But this is what the state mandated and still mandates that teachers do to virtually all 4th graders-- and 3rd graders in practice mode.  According to our state superintendent, if kids are worried about WASL, it's the teacher's fault.  Couldn't be state threats and hype, the dismal scores in the paper or the fact that the test is too hard.

For logistical reasons, I drove Carmen and Sam to school, so we often held (gasp) esteem-building conversations on the way, particularly after that crying day.  "Now, when you take the WASL next year, remember, NO TEST is worth crying over.  Do what you can and don't worry about the rest."  All the while, I thought to myself, My kids are sharp; they'll pass this test --which all kids are supposed to eventually pass-- with no problem.  

You know those little boxed-in lists of "good student indicators" in PTA newsletters?  On a scale of 1 being disagree or don't know and 5 being strongly agree, my kids would tally a pretty high score.  My twins were read to from the time they were six months old.  My twins had older siblings who were succeeding in high school.  My twins had a mom who was involved in every area of their school lives.  My twins enjoyed a variety of activities and were well behaved, having ultimate respect for their teachers and their school.  My twins lived in a two-parent household where good reading habits were demonstrated daily and a myriad of print was available.  My twins made connections with grandparents and other extended family.

My twins got their WASL scorecards back in the mail, the fall after 4th grade, and were labeled "substandard" by the state.  Aha!  Okay then, what are all those other kids with the really bad parents getting on their WASL scorecards?  I started digging.  I started writing to the state superintendent and asking questions I already knew the answers to.  I also began thinking about just what Carmen's and Sam's scorecards said about the test.  I wasn't concerned about what the scores said about them, because I knew they were doing fine in school regardless of what some state-mandated graph purported to tell me about MY kids.  By the way, that first year, the test was fine; 80 percent of the kids were failures.  The operation was a success; the patient died. By 4th grade, Carmen, who was a slower reader, as I had been, was reading at grade level and keeping up well.  She worked hard and completed assignments and got good grades.  Carmen "failed to meet the standard," in two of the four WASL sections-- math and writing.

By 4th grade, Samuel was missing large amounts of school because of allergies, sinus problems, asthma and a severe case of pneumonia.  He was quite quick in math and read on the 6th grade level.  He was fairly lazy and sloppy about schoolwork and didn't have a very steady routine.  He had constant headaches and had trouble concentrating on any paperwork for very long.  Samuel "met the standard" in reading, math and writing.  He "failed to meet the standard" in listening-- but I could have told the state that without him ever taking the test.

What had I learned about the 4th grade WASL from my in-house control group? WASL was not a test of knowledge or basic skills, it was an IQ test.  This test was a check of what kids brought to school, not what they were taught there.  Samuel couldn't possibly have learned how to pass the WASL at school-- he was never there!  Carmen learned everything she was taught in school, with near perfect attendance, yet couldn't meet reading and math "standards," which, according to the state superintendent, were what any "well-taught, hard working 4th grader should know and be able to do."

About the time I was finishing up my study and survey of WASL, I joined an e-mail discussion list of people fighting the entire package of education reform in my state.  As a longtime public school parent, I had been involved in school reform from consensus building to strategic planning to rubric writing.  I had fought the jargon and the disappearance of local control.  Now, with the implementation of WASL, I saw that goals had become requirements.  Standards for what was to be taught were now standards for childhood.  The raised bar was rapidly becoming a weapon-- one which should never have been allowed on school grounds.  Not with my kids you don't!

I don't remember who suggested the name Mothers Against WASL, but the news media liked it and it looked catchy on shirts, flyers, buttons and stickers, so it stuck.  The Internet became my friend.  I joined the Assessment Reform Network and signed on as their Washington State Coordinator.  Soon, I found that there were others-- many of them concerned moms like myself-- around the country, who had traveled a similar road to full-time educational activism.  Our families are patient, our children are safe from the tests, either because we opt them out or because we've been forced to opt them out of public school altogether.  Test prep does not an education make.  So, if that is all that is offered in our public schools, we are forced to find alternatives.  This is very sad, because most of us are strong public school believers.

My twins are now in 9th grade at the junior high my older children attended and that I attended a couple of decades ago.  It is a good school with teachers who don't worry too much about state test scores.  I work closely with teachers and administrators to see that we keep it that way.  Carmen and Samuel will never again take the WASL.  I opted them out in 7th grade and will do the same next year during the 10th grade test.

WASL continues to be a raise the bar monster-- a raise the bar monster that will soon determine who gets a diploma and which school gets "targeted assistance." Any adjustments that have been made over the past seven years have not been enough.  Studies have shown that the 4th and 7th grade math tests are completely inappropriate to grade level.  Perhaps this is why the pass rate at our junior high hovers at about twenty percent.

No statewide, standardized test should be used for anything more than a simple dipstick of school improvement.  Some people believe that with WASL we've built a better test and that we should use it as the whole digital engine diagnostic machine. They are wrong.  And, until they change their minds, We Won't WASL!

Juanita Doyon is the organizer of Mothers Against WASL, a founding member of ACT NOW (Advocates for Children and Teachers National Organizing Workshop) and a candidate for Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2004.  Juanita has recently published a book to support and encourage educational activists, Not With Our Kids You Don't!  Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, Heinemann, January 2003.  email: Jedoyon@aol.com