The Seattle Times

Friday, March 02, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Too early, too easy to give up on WASL

The Legislature is beginning to wobble over the WASL. It should get a hold of
itself. Use of the WASL tests to qualify students for high-school diplomas
may be a scary idea. It may make teachers, students and parents sweat with
worry. But that's good. It needs to do that.
Despite the early worries and criticism, it's too early for the state, the
teachers and the schools to give up on the WASL.

The WASL - the Washington Assessment of Student Learning - is a series of
tests given in the fourth, seventh and 10th grades. Beginning with the class
of 2008, students must pass 10th-grade WASLs in reading, listening and math
in order to graduate from high school. Later classes will have to pass a test
in science. Students will have up to five chances to pass before the end of
the 12th grade.

Why the worry now, when the class of 2008 is in the fifth grade? Because last
year, 34 percent failed the fourth-grade WASLs in reading and 59 percent
failed in math. The failure rate in math set off a wailing to put off the
math standard to 2010. A more radical idea is to make all the WASLs extras on
the diploma - "endorsements" only.

In other words, we surrender now to avoid a defeat seven years away.

Is that necessary? The experience of Indiana suggests not. Their "2008" was
last year. The first time around, only 54 percent of Indiana's Class of 2000
passed its new 10th-grade math and verbal tests. By the fourth time - and
lots of remedial work - 86 percent passed the tests. After one more test, the
final graduation rate last June was 89.5 percent, the same as when Indiana
had no test.

Indiana had two loopholes that we don't. A student who failed math could
graduate with a "C" in each of a list of core subjects, or he could graduate
with a "C" average, plus no more than 5 percent unexcused absences, plus
sign-offs from the principal and the teacher of the topic failed on the test.
But only a small percentage of students used these loopholes.

The Indiana Legislature was no bolder than ours. "Everybody had a bill,"
recalls Suellen Reed, Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. The
system was tweaked here and there, but mainly it survived.

And it worked. Faced with a demand that they learn, students learned.

Washington's superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson, says this
state can do the same. To do so, it must show teachers what the test
measures, and how it is scored, as was done in a recent seminar with 500
teachers. The new system may require new teaching. And if it be said that we
are "teaching to the test," that is so. That is what we are doing.

The Washington Education Association - the teachers' union - is against this.
Ever alert to any management of its members, the WEA wants to use "multiple
measures" of student achievement, including "classroom assessments" and
"socioeconomic factors." Translated, this means that the test shall not
count. That's not how WEA says it, but that's what it means.

It is tempting to have the test not count. The Class of 2008 has not had an
auspicious start. It is easy to say that these boys and girls will never
learn algebra, fractions and plane geometry, not even in seven years. Give
up. Give up now. Give them a pass on 12th-grade graduation on account of a
fourth-grade test.

Or we can stick with it. Indiana did.