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Friday, November 21, 2008

Opt Out of Math, Science WASLs

Over 23 months of research, I’ve spoken with administrators, board members, parents, teachers, principals, math professors, math advocates, businesspeople and a few students. I don’t consider myself to be an expert, but I’m knowledgeable enough now to converse somewhat intelligently about the problems and our options.

I’m asking Washington parents to opt out of the math and science WASLs.
  1. Administrators acknowledge that the WASL is the “floor” of expectations. Why waste time, money and resources testing for the floor?
  2. The math WASL is based on standards that are no longer in force. The science standards are being revised right now. Just 40-60% of students typically pass the math WASL. Few students pass the science WASL. Students don't have to pass the math or science WASLs in order to graduate.
  3. The 10th-grade math WASL is being eliminated and replaced by end-of-course tests. The new superintendent has said his goal is to "replace the WASL with a simpler, fairer test."
  4. The math and science WASLs are inadequate indicators of what students have learned. They also don’t show us what isn't being taught (such as algebra, for just one glaring example). No specific feedback about those tests goes back to students or parents.

I ask you: What is the point? Students are spending days, hours and months practicing for tests that aren’t based on the standards, that aren’t accurate measures of what they need to know, and that are likely on their way out.

Just say no. If you’re in Spokane, you can also say no to the SASL (Spokane’s WASLette). Say no to this lame-duck testing process. Say no, say no. Keep your children home those days and teach them there. Or, send them to school with some work you’ve given them. You have the right to say no.

When you opt out, you might be advised that your child’s WASLs will be counted as zeros for the school. You might be told that not taking the WASLs can affect scores and funding for the school, district or state. You might be told that the teacher or principal will be affected by your decision. I say, “Express your sympathy and continue to say no.” The system is broken. What opting out does is acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Right now, you can test your children with something that will give you an idea of the skills they’re missing. If you do this, I suspect you will be shocked. For mathematics, Singapore Math (my personal preference) and Saxon Math are free assessments. Of the assessments listed below, I have personal experience with Singapore Math, Saxon Math and Sylvan Learning.

Saying no to the WASL won’t fix the problems, but it will send a message to the education establishment. Parents in Washington have already tried to send messages – by phone, by letter, by email, and by voting with their feet. Much of the establishment seems to think parents don’t know what they’re talking about. See "Education Establishment Rebuffs Concerns" for more on that.

The Nov. 4 election was just another example of voter preferences being ignored. Before the election, Washington State Superintendent Terry Bergeson was aware that the WASL is a contentious issue. She knew Randy Dorn was campaigning on a platform of WASL opposition. On Nov. 4, voters selected Randy Dorn as the next superintendent of public instruction. On Nov. 5, I received an email from the Public Records Office at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) that answered questions I’d been asking since September. The Nov. 5 email confirmed that new contracts had been signed for several more years of the WASL and alternate tests. What will Randy Dorn be able to do about these contracts?

It must be said that I haven’t seen the contracts. They run thousands of pages, and it would cost me hundreds of dollars to have them copied. A Public Records person has agreed to send copies to me on a CD at a cost of $20.

It must also be said that I’m not a lawyer. In thousands of pages of legalese, what can I say about how binding they’ll be? According to the Nov. 5 email, however, the contracts are done and they total $164.5 million. Here’s the breakdown:

$ 374,861 to Assessment and Evaluation Services for the period 8/1/2008 to 12/31/2010. The scope of work includes coordination of quality control work efforts.
$131,193,205 to Data Recognition Corporation for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes testing operations, scoring and reporting, translations, teacher development.
$ 8,388,699 to Educational Service District 113 for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes the Collection of Evidence (alternative to the WASL).
$ 18,275,563 to Educational Testing Service for the period 7/21/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes assisting with work efforts associated with item and test development, and coordination of professional development.
$ 6,592,350 to Measured Progress for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes the Washington Alternate Assessment System Portfolio.

I’ve looked for this information on the OSPI Web site. I’ve waited for it to be disseminated in the Washington media. It wasn't in Terry Bergeson's Nov. 21 State of Education address. I found out about the contracts because I gave OSPI a formal request for public information.

Essentially, OSPI signed away $164.5 million in taxpayer money on contracts the public has repeatedly said it doesn’t want. This might have been hubris. They might have felt locked into doing it. Or, it might have been a final, poisonous pill. Regardless, the contracts are signed. The money is committed. Unless the contracts can be broken, say goodbye to that money, folks.

I’m asking you to say no to the madness. When it comes time for your child to take these lame-duck tests, refuse to participate. You are allowed to say no. Your vote at the ballot might not be respected and your money might be spent on tests that no one has to pass, but you can still vote with your feet. We get to do that in America, and by golly, we should.

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

Links to sample opt-out letters:


    Anonymous said...

    Great info. I'll re-use with gratitude and will credit your site.

    Heard another effective thing to do is to get a few of the top kids in your school to meet with the principal briefly after school and work through some grade-level flash cards. Apparently, their stammering and mistakes because they do not know their basic math facts is enough to get the principal to change the curriculum immediately.

    Our daughter was definitely gifted in math, and indeed, went on to get a "5" on the AP Calc test and graduate Phi Beta Kappa. But when she was in sixth grade, my eyes were opened, bigtime, when she was one of three or four kids picked in her grade to compete in a "Math Jesters" quiz game in front of a crowd, and the huge gaps in her math training were revealed. The moderator would give the question -- something like "28 - 17" -- and much to my shock, my daughter and the other "math whizes" couldn't get it instantly, in their heads. They all picked up pencils and worked the problem out on paper before they could answer. It was my first clue that their teachers had decided that memorizing the math facts and practicing mental computation skills were old hat, and that the kids were using calculators instead of their own heads. It's gotten much scarier now -- she's 24 -- because so much more of the dumbed-down rainforest math is prevalent. But I sure saw the front end of it, and am dismayed that it wasn't fixed long ago.

    Demonstrating the kids' own math weaknesses, especially if they are on the higher end of the spectrum and from families with means -- and therefore options to move away if the right things aren't done, and fast -- would be the most powerful persuader of school boards. I'd set something like that up to present at a school board meeting along with info about the better-quality curriculum and how it's working in other schools.

    We parents can talk 'til we're blue in the face but the educrats will still pooh-pooh us. They have to see the math incompetence with their own eyes and have their noses rubbed in it, unfortunately.

    Despite all these idealistic exhortations, though, it's probable that the only thing that would really work to get them to start using good curriculum and instructional methods would be if a critical mass of nice families (translation: the kids who are a joy to teach and who are being shortchanged the most right now) would pull their kids out of public school and, at significant financial sacrifice, put them in private school or homeschool them. The only thing the educrats understand is declining revenues, and the only way to get the politicians to give them less money is to reduce enrollment enough to make a splash that will reveal the quality problem.

    Only by giving the educrats "heartaches by the numbers" in their own revenue stream will we ever see positive change, I believe.

    Keep up the good work.

    -- Susan Williams

    Anonymous said...

    Excellent information and I hope it gets into the right hands. This has been a boondoggle from the outset and if there isn't any justice then at least the public can give these shills a piece of mind.

    Ryan said...

    In defense of measuring the floor, isn't that what a test like this should do is tell you the kids who aren't meeting the standard? The Iowa test with it's percentiles and the MAP with it's RIT scores are the same way.

    Laurie Rogers said...

    Thank you for your question, Ryan.

    I think there are different views on what a test is supposed to do: test the curriculum, test the teacher's effectiveness, test the children's ability to learn, test the standards...

    My view is that state standards should be structured so as to give schools a guide for preparing students for postsecondary life. This vision should entail college. Not everyone will go to college, but all capable students should be prepared for it. Who are administrators to shut off that path for any of the students? Besides, many other options require similar skills.

    The curricula, then, should also follow that trajectory, and so must the tests. If we are only testing for the floor, how can we possibly know whether the children are achieving what they need to achieve in order to follow their dreams, go to college, begin a trade, start a business, or lead the country?

    Testing for the floor is a pretense of accountability. Minimal standards help very few - most of those are administrators who need to prove their worth to the government and to voters. They need to be able to say, "See? We did it!" The lower the bar, the easier it is for them to appear to have met it.

    In general, testing for the floor will not help the children as much as it will help the adults around them.

    Anonymous said...

    Testing to the floor satisfies a legal requirement, but allows anything to be adopted as curriculum. The math requirements necessary for college and work are clear to everyone except public schools.

    High school physics, chemistry, and increasingly biology rely on students who understand how to reason and think with numbers. In my ninth grade extended algebra class, we are teaching division is the reverse of multiplication. Meaning most of my students haven't mastered multiplication.

    It is easily apparent when you visit a high school and look at the classes students are taking and the curriculum teachers are having to use with them.

    Replacing physics with physics without math is not a good solution, since it denies there is a problem. Adding conceptual physics, because students need to meet a college requirement is another matter since it encourages students to take science.

    But society should be focusing on preparing students for math and science related jobs, like engineering, because these students will be the job creators for the next generation. They have the skills that can create new jobs.

    Anonymous said...

    A test with a passing threshold should not be the standard for public education.

    For one, any curriculum that claims to improve performance on the WASL can be approved by the Board for adoption.

    The SAT is a better test because it predicts students'success in college and it is a voluntary test.

    College preparation focused on math and science is a better goal then character development. It takes longer to educate engineers and scientists.

    Burma Williams said...

    First, great article and great info!

    Next, notice that with the SAT or ACT tests, one can get copies of one's answers and can see if there are any errors. Yes, these tests do have errors once in a while. There is no such chance for checking for mistakes on the WASL's.

    Next, yes, keep your student home on WASL test days and just let your student relax and enjoy a good book, play a good computer game, or chat with you! All are much better ways to spend time.

    I do think that "conceptual" anything is educational crap for making crap acceptable.

    "Conceptual Physics" is just another way to say "Physics as taught by someone who has very little knowledge of physics and wants to be paid for dishing out garbage."

    I have been in education for 43 years and know of what I speak. In the 1960's grammar was tossed out of high school English classes so that students wouldn't "be inhibited by such trivial matters" and could "concentrate on reading and creative writing."

    Now we have just another version of the same shell game. Refuse to play it!

    Yes, my daughter graduated just before all this trash hit the fan, though the local school district managed to foist its own local version of garbage on students. Yes, if she were in a public high school now, she would not be taking the WASL tests, and my husband and I would be leading the charge locally to stop the WASL's.

    Actually, I am still involved and so very glad to see Laurie's work on line and so many of you willing to speak up. Keep talking and keep alive the dream of public schools where students go to be taught good curricula by competent,caring teachers who are supported by competent administrators and interested school boards.

    Burma Williams

    Anonymous said...

    Conceptual physics didn't become a part of science curriculum until science became a requirement for graduation and it was realized then that lower-level students, lacking math preparation, the requirement made it impossible for them to pass a traditional physics class.

    Its a similiar story for Senior Math -it meets a high school graduation requirement.

    Hewitt's Conceptual Physics book is very well written and it set the standard for all physics books thereafter, not just lower-level physics textbooks, but all high school physics textbooks - wrt clarity, scope, and sequence. Halliday and Resnick is also very relevant as a standard. Hewitt's textbook if you can find it, is a valuable resource

    Well-written textbooks have their own standard that is far above the industry standard.

    If your school's physics teacher is using Conceptual Physics with an advanced class, it is because of the math programs at your school. I know one teacher that spends the first six weeks teaching algebra to his students so they can get through forces and motion. His students can't get through more than ten chapters in a year and these are his best students. Toward the final weeks of school, he teaches his own specialty which is astronomy and special relativity. He's a Cornell graduate, so I don't think he's stupid.

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