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Monday, September 29, 2008

WASL is the "floor" of expectations

People have complained that Washington’s standardized tests (the WASL) have suffered “mission creep.” The original intent, they say, was to test students as a way to “assess teachers and other educators and hold them accountable.” But now, the goal is to prove administrator competence to the federal government.

In a March 2008, radio interview, former Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Benzel said the WASL was always designed to test the students. Benzel was a member of the Commission on Student Learning (which created the WASL). He said a “link to the high school diploma” was always part of the deal, and that the WASL was a “pre-diploma standard.” It was never intended to be a college-readiness or work-readiness indicator, he said. It was always designed to test reading, writing and math skills “at a basic level.”

Karin Short, former curriculum director for Spokane Public Schools, agrees. She told me in January 2007 that the WASL is “just the floor” of expectations. “We want our kids to exceed that,” she said.

Well, that just makes the whole thing worse. Almost half of the students can’t pass the math portion of this “floor” of expectations, and few can pass science. Interestingly, those who do pass the math, reading and writing portions can earn a high-school diploma and a special “Certificate of Academic Achievement.” If I correctly understand Benzel and Short, then, this “Certificate of Academic Achievement” is an award for being able to reach the floor.

The math and science portions of the WASL were to be graduation requirements by now, but consistently disappointing scores across the state inspired the legislature in 2007 to delay that until 2013. Students must keep taking the math test, but to graduate, they can pass it, pass an alternative or just keep taking math courses until they graduate.

In March 2008, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill to reintroduce end-of-course exams and do away with the math portion of the 10th-grade WASL altogether. But the students have to keep taking it. In 2013, the 10th-grade math WASL will become an option, and in 2014, it will be history. Until then, like some incredibly expensive headless chicken that doesn’t know it’s dead, it will keep running around the farmyard bleeding money.

At this time, 10th-grade students in Washington have five separate opportunities to pass the WASL. Those who can’t pass the math portion can apply to show competency through alternative testing. The alternatives and regulations have been tinkered with and modified over time, driving some students halfway to distraction. One of the alternatives is called a WASL-Grades comparison.

Are you curious about the WASL-Grades comparison? So was I. That option works like this (let’s see if I can write it with a straight face): A student who has at least a 3.2 GPA can compare class grades against a group of fellow students who passed the WASL, and if the student’s grades are above the mean of the grades of the rest of the group, then that can count as an alternative to the WASL.

(Ha, ha, ha, ha… No, sorry. I couldn’t do it.) They can’t be serious. One starts to wonder if they just don’t want students to achieve.

It’s too bad these alternative ways don’t include learning core academic content with a more direct approach. It’s too bad, but it’s understandable because that would admit to the world that the current approach to math isn’t working well. And that, my friends, administrators must never do lest they all turn into pillars of salt.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (September, 2008). "WASL is the 'floor' of expectations." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

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