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The WASL Dilemma 

by Donald C. Orlich & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) is causing deleterious effects on poor, disabled and minority children by creating a permanent "underclass" with just a hint of covert institutional racism.

The WASL purports to (1) measure student achievement, (2) determine school district accountability, (3) evaluate teacher competence, (4) guide school improvement and (5) determine who graduates from high school. Any single test used to address five mutually exclusive goals is unreliable and invalid.

However, my purpose here is to focus on the unintended consequences of the WASL. Discussions about high-stakes tests (WASL, ACT, SAT) must address the issue of student poverty. It behooves all policy makers who have legalized high-stakes testing to at least ask, "What is the impact of student poverty and ethnicity on test scores as a mechanism for sorting and classifying children?"

Studies in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Washington, Denver and Boston -- along with others in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales -- all show that poverty is a primary determinant of student achievement. High-stakes test scores are very highly correlated with family income. A major study of mathematics tests scores from academic high schools in the metropolitan Boston area led to the conclusion that income is strongly correlated with test scores and accounts for more than 80 percent of the variance in average scores.

School leaders and politicians in Washington state are touting WASL scores as if they were precise educational measures of student learning and overall achievement: The scores are not. Further, the WASL offers virtually no useable feedback to enhance student academic gains.

Examine the WASL 10th-grade first-time pass rates. White and Asian students have significantly higher scores than black, Hispanic, Native American, English language-learners, free/reduced lunch students and students with disabilities. The ranges for mathematics are 52 percent passing to 6 percent passing; and for reading and language arts, 71 percent to 15 percent.

Long-term test data from the WASL, ACT and SAT suggest an ethnic variable related to achievement on high-stakes tests. These data tend to indicate that poverty and ethnicity appear to be inextricably related.

One example tells it all. The WASL test score pass rates of one of Washington state's highest-family-income school districts, Mercer Island, were compared with all children from low-income homes in the state. Extraordinary achievement differences of 40 percent to 60 percent favored Mercer Island children at every grade level and for every subject tested.

On March 1, 2005, the United Nations released Child Poverty in Rich Countries: 2005. Scandinavian countries had the lowest levels of child poverty among the "developed" countries of the world, primarily due to very highly subsidized social benefits paid directly to families. The United States and Mexico had the world's worst child poverty rates. For Mexico, the percentage was 27.7; for the United States, it was 21.9.

The report writers stated that such disparity of wealth leaves many children, through no fault of their own, at a social disadvantage. The report also noted that there is a close correlation between poverty and educational underachievement.

As early as 1962, Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States provided substantive data that several million Americans, especially Hispanics, were trapped in a culture of poverty.

Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish Nobel laureate in economics, was commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation for his seminal work -- An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Myrdal showed the ever-widening gap between equality and reality for African Americans in the United States. His work was subsequently cited in the 1954 historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed public school desegregation. Myrdal's economic theory posits that poverty breeds poverty.

The current plethora of mandated high-stakes tests, the WASL in particular, have created a new American dilemma. The poor, disfranchised, minority and disabled children have fallen into education's "achievement gap."

Poverty is a powerful force in creating educational deficits. But you will not find advocates of the WASL discussing that social issue, including the Partnership for Learning, the Business Roundtable, the Superintendent of Public Instruction or our the state legislators. One simply has to ask, "Why the silence?" The social consequence of labeling a generation of adolescents as being flat-out failures from one questionable test needs serious psychological, psychiatric and legal evaluation.

Donald Orlich, professor emeritus at WSU, is author of the upcoming School Reform and the Great American Brain Robbery. Write or call (509) 335-4844.

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