Pencils Down

Controversy killed the WASL. Will the replacement tests face the same fate?

Before taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test, students statewide always counted on one thing: a terrible night’s sleep.

After all, for the past 12 years, those four letters — W, A, S and L — have screamed “big deal.”

They were strewn across protest signs, furiously debated among academics and wielded as hotbutton issues in political races. They dominated every school in the state for two weeks a year. They were a matter of graduation and reputation and federal compensation.

The WASL spawned epic battles: the fourth-grader suspended for not answering a question, the teacher on leave without pay for refusing to administer it, the child asking if Mommy would still love her if she’d failed the test.

The very word “WASL,” newly elected State Superintendent Randy Dorn famously said, had become “Kryptonite.”

But then, suddenly, it was gone. In his campaign against incumbent Terry Bergeson, Dorn had promised to kill the WASL if he won.

But something had to fill the void, thus the creation of a couple of new acronyms: the MSP and the HSPE. Grades three to eight have begun taking the Measurement of Student Progress, while tenth graders took the High School Proficiency Exam earlier this year.

The names are different, the tests have changed, but the stakes remain just as high. And while the new tests have yet to draw the same heat as the WASL, that may be because they’ve flown under the radar so far. Some in education expect that sharper critiques are simply a matter of time.

Shorter, Faster

Ironically, Randy Dorn helped write the law that led to the creation of the WASL. The 1993 legislation demanded both consistent statewide educational standards and an assessment to determine whether students were actually meeting them.

But by 2005, Dorn came to a conclusion: The WASL had grown too big, too all-consuming.

“That became the focus of the education,” Dorn says. “It became the one thing that judged whether you were learning or not … We got kinda somehow thinking that the assessment was student learning.”

The four WASL tests — reading, math, writing and science — had ballooned to fill two full weeks. And that, for now, is the biggest difference between the WASL and the replacement tests: time. The number of days needed to take the test has been slashed from eight to five. The length of each test also decreased. And soon the length of reading passages will be shorter.

But in these first iterations of the tests, some say the test-taking time far exceeds predictions.

“We were promised it was going to be shorter. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be much shorter,” Spokane Education Association President Jenny Rose says. “Yesterday, fourth graders took it. Some were there from 9:30 to 3:30 taking a standardized test.”

Central Valley High School language arts teacher Leanne Donley says most of her sophomores couldn’t finish the reading HSPE test in the allotted time. “Tons of kids didn’t get done and it bled into the regular day.”

Familiar Questions

WASL veterans remember questions like these: “Based on this selection, what do you know about the author? Use four details that can be found in the selection or inferred from the selection to describe the author as completely as possible.”

Those questions — the four-point extended responses — have been completely eliminated. Two-point questions (“use two details to describe the author”) will remain, though they can only make up 25 percent of the point total. The majority are short-answer and multiple-choice-type questions.

“We had a lot of public comments that it seems like [the WASL] is all a writing test,” Dorn says. You could be a genius mathematician, Dorn says, but if you couldn’t write well, you could flunk the WASL.

But besides the length of the test and distribution of questions, how do the actual questions on the new tests differ from WASL questions?

This year, they don’t. In fact, this year, pretty much every question on the HSPE and MSP are WASL questions.

With the exception of the math MSP, 90 percent of the questions on both new tests have appeared on previous WASL tests. And the other 10 percent are first-time pilot questions, which aren’t graded.

After all, Dorn only took office last year and developing a new question takes about 18 months.

“By state law, we can’t dramatically change our state assessments overnight or within one year,” writes Chris Barron, spokesman for Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Each potential question needs to be approved by teachers, OSPI employees and the test contractor. Each question must pass the scrutiny of a bias/sensitivity committee. Then each potential question must appear on a test, as an ungraded pilot question, before it actually counts. (The new math questions, necessary because of new math curriculum standards, appeared on a pilot test last June.)

In 2011, the tests will feature fill-in-the-blank questions and standalone multiple-choice questions. New reading selections will come from a broader variety of sources. But for now, the test is pretty darn WASLy.

“Which raises the political question,” writes Everett Herald political columnist Jerry Cornfield. “If it looks like the WASL, sounds like the WASL, reads like the WASL and counts like the WASL, isn’t it the WASL?”

No #2 Pencil Needed

Eighth grader Aly Rose and her Evergreen Middle School classmate Victoria Nauta were among those who suffered sleepless nights because of the WASL. This year, though, Aly and Victoria weren’t as stressed about the new test. The reason: Their test was on a computer.

“During the WASL, sometimes I’d have to stop because my hand was so sore,” Aly says. “I’m so used to using computers. I’m used to e-mailing my friends. I have practice.”

Computers present other issues. “A lot of students had to walk away because their eyes hurt so bad,” Victoria says. Still, she loved taking the test on a computer.

It just felt like practice. There wasn’t a thick, looming test packet, constantly taunting her with how much she had to finish.

Evergreen Middle School joins 25 percent of middle schools statewide in helping pilot online tests for reading and writing. By 2012, all schools for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades will take the reading and mathematics tests online.

Dorn says online testing will mean two things: cheaper costs and faster response times. Theoretically, portions of the online test — like the multiple-choice test — could be scored instantly.

Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Carolina already use the Computerized Assessments and Learning software that Washington has adopted. The software comes with a full complement of test-taking tools meant to simulate all that you can do on a piece of paper. You can mark questions for later review, cross out incorrect choices, highlight key phrases and annotate paragraphs with sticky-notes. Formulas and a calculator — if allowed — are only a tab away.

One major concern about online testing — that students would use the Internet to cheat — is a non-issue. The test locks out all other programs.

Some students, says Evergreen Middle School teacher Kylie Watson, were worried the computers would crash or freeze. Predictably, two did. But the students were immediately moved to another computer — and their in-progress test had been automatically saved.

The Old Critics

For all the scrutiny the WASL received during Dorn’s election campaign — and for years beforehand — the new tests have thus far received little fanfare.

That’s purposeful. The Office of the State Superintendent has intentionally avoided launching a wave of press releases. “As you do that, teachers got so uptight around the assessment,” Dorn says.

Nevertheless, two things that incensed WASL critics remain unchanged. As with the WASL, students have to pass the new tests (or an approved alternative) to graduate. And schools, as required by No Child Left Behind legislation, must ensure that more and more students pass the state standardized tests each year.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” says Juanita Doyon, director of Mothers Against the WASL, now called the Parent Empowerment Network. She likes a shorter test, but she’s still opposed to schools being judged by any one test.

That’s the song the teachers’ union, Washington Education Association, is singing: A 2008 poll of WEA members found that 70 percent opposed linking a single standardized test to a student’s graduation. The WEA, spokesman Rich Wood says, is still concerned the tests’ focus on math, science, reading and writing casts aside subjects like social studies and art.

Shelley Anderson, a Spokane parent, was a part of Mothers Against the WASL, and like many parents, her opposition to the WASL began with one of her academically successful children failing the test. “As long as there’s a graduation requirement, I’m going to fight it,” Anderson says. “All they did is they changed the name so that we didn’t have a catchy acronym to use. … That’s like taking a quadriplegic and handing them one crutch and saying, ‘Here you go. You’re all fixed.’”

The New Critics

Former State Superintendent Terry Bergeson remembers the first year of the WASL, sitting in her office, having stacks upon stacks of writing results brought into her office — with nary a single paragraph of coherent writing.

“Now you find fourth graders that can write three page essays,” Bergeson says. She’s proud of that.

Bergeson supports the decision to make the tests shorter and to put them online. But she frets that the new tests — with less writing, with no four-point extended response questions — will gradually chip away at the gains she saw in writing and critical thinking.

“Every other country in the world does essay exams, and people have to do far more extensive writing and problem solving,” Bergeson says.

Cathy Taylor, educational psychology professor at the University of Washington, has the past 10 years of WASL results posted on her wall. They’re next to scores for SATs, ACTs, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Advanced Placement participation levels. They all have something in common: They’ve all been marching steadily upward. The past 10 years — the decade of WASL — has been a very successful time for education.

Taylor studied the WASL extensively, and on every scientific measurement — validity, reliability — she found it to be a good test.

Like Bergeson, Taylor now worries about regression. She worries about the effects of shorter reading passages and the new math standards. Lose the extended-answer questions, she figures, and lose the ability to measure the higher-order thinking skills required to answer them.

“It looks very much like testing we did in the 1970s,” Taylor says. “I know we’re going back to that.”

Dorn says testing experts have examined the tests thoroughly to ensure they are just as hard — difficulty achieved through difficult questions, not arduous length.

But talk to some students, and you’ll hear a different word thrown around: easy.

“A lot of people were saying [the HSPE] was pretty easy,” says Randee Matthews, a University High School sophomore. “The questions in general were not as hard.”

With only one essay per day, Matthews says, she could concentrate on just that essay without worrying about the one looming ahead.

“The HSPE… it’s, like, tolerable,” Matthews says. “If we have to do it, we’d rather do the HSPE over the WASL.”

The Alternatives

Two years ago State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) was part of a WASL workgroup that analyzed standardized tests around the country. The conclusion recommended having assessments at multiple points throughout the year and possibly switching to a diagnostic test — in other words, a test that gave students and teachers direct feedback about the precise areas where improvement was needed.

The problem, McAuliffe says, is that the federal Department of Education would not approve such a test being used as the state standard. She’s lobbying furiously to persuade them otherwise.

Dorn was hoping to create an additional voluntary diagnostic test in the fall to be able to track progress and growth throughout the year, OSPI spokesman Barron says. But budget cuts quickly scuttled that idea.

Ben Small, Central Valley School District superintendent, suggests that a solid assessment is needed to keep schools accountable — but then build alternative assessments around that.

“I think we have an opportunity to reset the table, to keep the test in perspective.” Small says. “The test can’t become bigger than the work teachers do in the classroom for kids… [Otherwise] I think we’ll end up in five to seven years with the same reaction.”

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...