TOPICS > Education

Report Card on Standardized Testing: WASL

June 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PROTESTORS: No WASL!

LEE HOCHBERG: As thousands of Washington State students took the state’s standardized assessment test called the WASL last month, opponents of the test took their protest to the streets.

PROTESTOR: No WASL! It’s Washington testing.

PROTESTOR: And we don’t want it! ( Cars honking )

PROTESTOR: All right, thank you!

LEE HOCHBERG: Washington State developed the WASL ten years ago to monitor student progress in reading, math, writing and listening. The state requires forth, seventh, and tenth graders to take the test. And it required that in any three-year-period, the number of students passing the test at any school increase by a designated percentage.

SPOKESMAN: You got one here.

LEE HOCHBERG: WASL already was controversial. But it became more controversial last year, when president bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act. It set tougher new standards for student performance on all state tests. For example, in Washington State, schools that used to have three years to get their students up to standard, now have to do it in one. And if they don’t they’re sanctioned with stiff new penalties.

TERRY BERGESON, State Superintendent of Public Instruction: “No Child Left Behind” is going to put a lot more pressure, in good ways and bad ways. The good thing about it is the goal. The bad thing is that they kind of went berserk on the accountability pieces of this.

LEE HOCHBERG: Washington State school superintendent Terry Bergeson says the state was improving school performance on its own. And “No Child Left Behind” added an unneeded punitive layer. The new federal law not only sanctions schools if students as a whole fall short of test standards, but if particular categories of students fall short, like a specific grade level or racial group or students with disabilities.

TERRY BERGESON: There are like 37 ways you can fail as a school. What’s next? If they get more punitive at that level, this is all going to blow up.

LEE HOCHBERG: The consequences of the sanctions can be seen in the school district in Yakima, Washington, a low-income, heavily Hispanic community. WASL scores in reading have been low. So under terms of “No Child Left Behind,” the school this fall will have to set aside 20 percent of its federal moneys — $800,000 for individual tutors or for bus transportation to shuttle some students to higher performing schools.

TEACHER: Who knows what a suffix is?

LEE HOCHBERG: The district says that money would be better spent to continue a state-of-the-art reading program that began last year…

CHILD READING: “The sky looks black on a moon…”

LEE HOCHBERG: …Through which second and third graders have shown dramatic improvement.

CHERYL MAYO, Yakima School District: So, we were moving down that path real rapidly and then all of a sudden it’s like, boom, we get stuck, we get bombarded with this No Child Left Behind Act.

LEE HOCHBERG: Associate superintendent Cheryl Mayo says “No Child Left Behind” behind didn’t take into account the second and third graders’ success. It just looked at the test scores of the older kids taking the WASL. Many of them had developed bad reading habits and will take longer to retrain.

CHERYL MAYO: What it boils down to is that $800,000 pays for 14 reading coaches, for example, to be in the classroom working directly with teachers and students, as a result of the “No Child Left Behind,” we either lose the reading coaches, or if we keep the reading coaches we lose 16 teachers out of the classroom.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bergeson says the federal plan punishes schools too quickly.

TERRY BERGESON: Now, they’re screwing up their whole budget because they don’t get two or three years to work on this. They get whacked year one. That’s crazy.

LEE HOCHBERG: Federal sanctions also kick in if fewer than 95 percent of a school’s students take the state test. That’s led to schools taking controversial steps to make sure their students are in class when the test is given. At Decatur High School in suburban Seattle, principal Jerry Millet offered his students a deal. Those who had failed a class would get credit for their class if they passed the WASL.

JERRY MILLET, Principal, Federal Way High School: Depending on one’s perspective, one would see the virtue in our plan or one would see the cynicism and call it a bribe. And I can’t argue with either case. We know it’s practical; we know it’s pragmatic.

LEE HOCHBERG: Sophomore Brenna Newport had been flunking English.

BRENNA NEWPORT, Student: It’s kind of like my savior, because I could take it to a “c-”, so it, like, helped me out a lot.

JERRY MILLET: Punitive action would come if below 95 percent of your students registered or completed the test. We could argue either side of that argument, but that’s the way it is. That’s the standard and we need to meet it.

LEE HOCHBERG: So desperate was one school to assure a good WASL turnout, it seemingly misled parents who wanted their children excused from the test. Parents in the Lake Stevens school district, outside Seattle, were told in these letters that failure to participate in the WASL can impact a child’s ability to meet graduation requirements. In fact, the WASL is not a requirement for graduation. We asked district spokeswomen Arlene Hulten about the letters.

ARLENE HULTEN, Lake Stevens School District: It is an indication of the pressure that our director of assessment feels about doing everything that’s possible to make this important to parents. The pressure is definitely there. It will be more significant with “No Child Left Behind.”

LEE HOCHBERG: That argument made Michelle Derus– who has children in fourth, fifth and eighth grade– furious.

MICHELLE DERUS: First I was shocked and then I was really angry. I was very angry and disappointed that they would stoop to that to try to pressure people into taking the test — trying to scare people basically.

LEE HOCHBERG: Reporter: Yet for all of the concern over the testing, there are success stories.

TEACHER: What I see on this side and when I pick it up is exactly the same?

STUDENTS: Yes.

STUDENTS: Yes.

TEACHER: Good job. And that is a great thing.

LEE HOCHBERG: Six years ago, Tacoma’s Stanley Elementary School, an urban, high-poverty school was considered a struggling school. Today, its fourth graders exceed the Tacoma School District averages on the reading, writing, and math WASL.

TEACHER: Follow the shape of the outline on the paper. It’s really close.

LEE HOCHBERG: Teacher Kristin Wascher-Phelps says teaching to the WASL makes her more effective.

KRISTIN WASCHER-PHELPS, Teacher: It tells us what to teach because they’ve already gone through and figured out, the state has, on what standards are age appropriate. The kids you just saw today are doing an exercise on mirror symmetry which is always on the WASL. And we teach it maybe three or four times a year in different ways to make sure that the kids really understand the concept of symmetry.

TEACHER: I’m going to give you a hint, 1820.

LEE HOCHBERG: Other teachers, though, are upset with the way the WASL is being used. Paula Fraser, an elementary school teacher in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, says teaching to the test has taken time away from other areas she considers vital. Fraser says social studies, not tested on the WASL, has been removed from her fifth grade students’ curriculum.

PAULA FRASER, Teacher: Teachers have been directed to not focus as much on the areas that are not tested; to spend more time on practice testing and writing. What is not tested is not taught.

PAULA FRASER: Where does that say that in the constitution? Can you find that?

LEE HOCHBERG: Fraser has gone through extra effort to integrate social studies into her other classes. But she doubts that younger, less experienced teachers would do that. Still, Washington State business leaders say they want the WASL’s profile raised even higher, requiring students to pass it to enter state colleges. They say that could improve the readiness of state students for jobs. Jennifer Vranek heads a coalition of business leaders.

JENNIFER VRANEK, Partnership for Learning: There’s a direct connection between the quality of the public schools and the quality of the work force, and we’re not seeing enough progress, enough change, and we’re not seeing it fast enough.

SINGING: W.A.S.L. That’s what we’re talking about

LEE HOCHBERG: For now, Washington educators say they’ll do everything they can, including at this Seattle high school recently, a little bad dancing to goad their students into taking and passing the state’s standardized test.

SINGING: W.A.S.L. That’s what we’re talking about — W.A.S.L.