by Nina Shapiro & r & One morning last spring, 9-year-old Tyler Stoken awoke in his modest rambler in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County, and asked his mom to make him bacon. He was about to take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the statewide test better known as the WASL ("Wassle"), and Tyler had been told at school to have a good breakfast. The test was important to Central Park Elementary, as it is to all schools. The WASL is the linchpin of a decade-old movement in Washington state, mirroring efforts in other states and at the federal level, to reform education by raising standards. Newspapers publish the test results, underperforming schools are subject to potential federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act and, as Central Park Principal Olivia McCarthy later told an investigator for the local Educational Service District (ESD), educators "are under constant pressure to perform."

Tyler wanted to be ready for this all-important test, and he had every reason to believe that he was. He was a bright boy who got great grades and scored in the 89th percentile on the national Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

"I think I aced it," he told his mom after one day of the test, which spans two weeks. On a subsequent day, however, he faced an essay question that stumped him. It asked him to imagine that he saw his principal flying by the window and to write several paragraphs about what happened next. He sat there, not writing a word. "I didn't want to make fun of the principal," he explains, quietly recalling the episode while leaning against his mom.

At the time, Tyler didn't say why he found the question so difficult. All his teacher, and later his principal, knew was that he wasn't performing. And they did not like it. His mom, Amy Wolfe, says the school called her three times over the next couple of days, during which Tyler was repeatedly given the question to complete. The school wanted Wolfe to get her son to write that essay. The last time they called, he got on the phone, crying. Unable to figure out what was going on, Wolfe and the school finally gave up on the test. But Tyler hadn't heard the end of it.

The Friday after the test was over, Central Park held a special event to celebrate the students' hard work on the WASL. The kids had curled up in blankets from home as they watched Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in the gym. Before the movie started, though, Tyler was called to the principal's office. "She said I didn't deserve to watch the movie," Tyler says. She instructed Tyler to go to a table in the office's reception area and put his head down. He was left like that for five hours and 20 minutes, according to a report by the ESD -- so long that his neck hurt.

When he went home that day, Tyler had a note in his backpack from Principal McCarthy informing his mother that he would be suspended for five days because of his "refusal to work on the WASL." The note called Tyler's behavior "blatant defiance and insubordination" but made very clear that it was his score that caused such a grievous wound. McCarthy wrote: "As he chose NOT to perform, he will get a zero on that section, which will be averaged with the scores of all the other students in his class. ... Additionally, this extends to the whole fourth grade, as our school score, the one that is reported to the state and the media, is an average of all fourth-grade students."

Diplomas in Jeopardy & r & The WASL has swept the state education system like a fever, an obsession, a madness. "Where can you go in the state of Washington and not hear 'WASL'?" asks Washington Middle School teacher Debra Tarpley of Seattle. In anticipation of the legislative session beginning in January, the Washington Education Association, the state teachers union, hired a pollster to conduct focus groups with teachers to find out what issues most concerned them.

"They talked about the WASL," says WEA President Charles Hasse. "He [the pollster] then asked, 'What else?' Then they talked about the WASL some more."

"I dream about the WASL," says Brittany Morris, a sophomore at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. Tenth-graders there are expected to attend a weekly after-school WASL prep class, and there are "WASL Wednesdays," when every class leads a practice for the test.

The pressure is greater than ever. This year's sophomores will be the first class required to pass the reading, writing and math sections of the 10th grade WASL before they can graduate from high school. Last year, just 42 percent of the state's sophomores passed. At Rainier Beach, an overwhelmingly poor and minority school, just 7 percent passed. So the state faces the possibility that thousands of kids, perhaps virtually the entire senior class of some schools, will be left at graduation time in 2008 with no place to go. Even more kids will likely be in that position in 2010, when students will be required to pass the 10th-grade science WASL as well.

The state will release this year's results in June. "I'm thinking already about what I'm going to say to my constituents the morning the test scores come out," one state legislator told Bellevue schools Superintendent Mike Riley, who declined to name the lawmaker. Legislators, who put the WASL in motion with a landmark education reform bill in 1993, have reason to fear a rebellion. This fall, in a survey the state teachers union conducted of its membership, 72 percent said they opposed having the WASL as a graduation requirement.

The WASL is designed in large part to hold teachers accountable, so it might seem natural that they chafe against the system. Even more striking, therefore, is the discontent among parents. The state Parent Teacher Association recently surveyed its 146,000 members about how they felt about the WASL. What came back was an outpouring of passionate testimony against the WASL, much of it relating personal experiences. A representative comment from one Seattle mom: "I'm just angry about the whole thing and feel hostage to the system."

In early October, the state PTA, not usually associated with radical positions, determined that it would lobby the Legislature to delay using the WASL as a graduation requirement and to seek "multiple measures of student achievement," not just the one test.

Dan Brown, president of the Eastern Washington branch of the state teacher's association, says the concern he hears most from local educators is that the WASL is unnecessarily, and harmfully, punitive. "Everybody's concerned about the punitive nature of it," he says. "Instead of focusing on how [to] fix the problem, we're gonna punish the school or punish the student who didn't achieve standard."

Brown and many others in the state association believe the graduation requirement should consider more factors than just WASL scores -- things like grade-point-average, credits earned and SAT/ACT scores. "If you pass the 10th grade WASL, why bother with the last two years of high school," he asks, rhetorically. "There is that mindset that might take over."

He points to this Saturday's meeting of the Washington Education Association board to discuss other such standards, and he sounds confident that the legislature will soften the blow to high school students before the class of '08 is scheduled to stroll across the dais. "I think that will likely be the case," he says. "This legislative session is going to come to face this and come up with some solutions. I think a lot of legislators foresee a train wreck."

Still, Brown points out that not every teacher in the area is eager to overthrow the system. "I think a lot of people are really positive about a lot of aspects about the WASL, like the accountability for what a student's learning. They also like that it's focused on basing curriculum on identified needs."

And besides, he says, the state has poured millions into the WASL, so they're not likely to abandon it. "But if it does still exist, we just want to make sure it's not the be-all end-all."

Back to Basics & r & "The Legislature is going to go full-bore on this," predicts former Gov. Booth Gardner. He's doing his best to make sure of it. Presiding over the state from 1985-93, Gardner, a Democrat, got the education reform movement started. Over the past year, however, he says he has heard a constant din about the WASL that has convinced him that something has gone wrong with the effort to raise standards. Acknowledging the all-consuming pressure that the test has wrought, he says, "I don't think anybody anticipated it." Gardner looks at the alarming number of kids likely to end their senior year without a diploma and warns, "We're headed for a train wreck."

He says he spoke to Gov. Christine Gregoire about this, and she said, in Gardner's words, "Go fix it." So Gardner assembled an ad hoc group of about 50 influential players in education, including the chairs of the legislative education committees, to work on a proposal to bring to Olympia in early 2006.

Even some people who are presumed to favor staying the WASL course want a change in direction. Take Bellevue schools superintendent Riley. One of the most admired superintendents in the state, he has led the charge to make college-level Advanced Placement classes part of every high-school student's curriculum in his district. He is all about raising standards. Yet, he says, "You don't take a week of kids' time and make that determine whether or not they get a diploma."

Riley also expresses disbelief that no system is ready to deal with the students who will be left in limbo once they fail. Students are allowed four retakes, and if they fail twice, they are supposed to undergo alternative assessments to demonstrate what they know. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is working on two pilot alternatives: One would require students to compile a "collection of evidence" of work, and another would allow them to use a high grade-point average to offset a substandard WASL score. The Legislature, however, hasn't signed off on those alternatives.

"This is like Keystone Cops. That's very high stakes," Riley says, "and you don't even know what's going to happen next. ... If I was a parent, I'd say, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Emmett Arndt, high school director for Spokane Public Schools, points out that each student has five chances to pass the WASL before graduation time -- first, in the spring of their sophomore year, then in each consecutive summer and spring. Asked if the district has planned for a scenario in which a student can't pass the test in five tries, though, he says, "I'm not even going to [predict] that students won't be graduating. Our focus is getting all our students up to those standards. That's projected out there to a point where we have not even looked at that yet."

Arndt believes that five retakes and two additional years of focused study are sufficient for any student to pass the WASL and graduate, but he says that if a student can't pass the test, but still completes four years and accrues sufficient credits, the student would get a certificate of completion -- just not an official diploma. And that student still would have access to additional training after school, he points out, by enrolling in a community college or a technical training school.

Spokane Public Schools spokeswoman Terren Roloff, though, prefers to talk about what the district's doing now to head off that kind of scenario. She lists off a series of programs designed to help students prepare for the test: before-school individual work with teachers, after-school learning centers, reading support, math labs, summer school, etc.

She says that programs like these have already demonstrated success at the primary level. "We have seen incredible improvement in our elementary schools, where [the WASLs have] been around the longest," she says adding that "given the free and reduced [lunch] rates in our community, the fact that our WASL results at the elementary level are higher than the state average is really exciting." In other words, even the smallest kids are becoming competent test-takers.

Plus, Roloff believes the new requirement will light a fire under the class of '08. Out of last year's sophomore class, 67 percent met the standard in reading, 44 met it in math and 64 met it in writing. "We expect our numbers to jump up this next year because we expect that the students will take it more seriously at the high school level," she says.

Molly O'Connor wants everybody to take a step back. "We got so caught up with WASL, WASL, WASL, we've kind of forgotten about why we're doing this," she says. O'Connor is a spokeswoman for Partnership for Learning, a nonprofit supported by the state's biggest companies, including Microsoft and Boeing. The group is the WASL's biggest cheerleader aside from state officials. In the past few months, the partnership has mailed a series of glossy fliers to students' families (they got the names and addresses from school districts), as well as to political and media leaders, in an apparent attempt to bolster support for the test. "I can pass the WASL," reads the front of one postcard, next to a picture of a student.

O'Connor responds to criticism of the test by saying, "The train wreck has already happened. We keep sending kids out there totally unprepared."

Jean Carpenter, the state PTA's executive director and a WASL critic, concedes the point: "We helped pass education reform; we had kids graduating who couldn't read and write." Prominent among them were poor, minority children.

Education reform put superintendents, principals and teachers on notice: They would have to ensure that all students attain a certain level of proficiency by graduation, and this would be demonstrably measured with a test, what later became the WASL. Eight years later, the federal government weighed in with No Child Left Behind. That act requires states to use their own tests, in our case the WASL, to assess kids in third through eighth grades. Consequently, an even more extensive testing schedule will go into effect this year, adding to the current regimen of tests given primarily in fourth, seventh, and 10th grades. Most significantly, No Child Left Behind mandates that states disaggregate test scores to make sure that minorities and other groups are achieving. States that don't perform up to snuff face possible loss of federal money. That has put a fire under state bureaucrats. Note, however, that the state, not the feds, made the WASL a graduation requirement, lighting a match under students, too.

While such high stakes ignite controversy, there is enormous appeal to the idea of shaking up the status quo, to insist that historically neglected and underperforming students achieve. "We need to implode the system," says Seattle Urban League President James Kelly, a WASL supporter. "It's about high expectations." For those who complain, including minorities and others who lament the high failure rate, he has a rejoinder: "The bar has been raised. Get over it."

Ideally, this would be done with a rigorous curriculum that just happened to have a test associated with it. The most important part of education reform, according to boosters, is not the WASL but new academic standards that lay out for teachers the skills their students should be learning. "It's the skills, not the scores," says Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. She says Bergeson has challenged herself lately not even to say "WASL." Says O'Connor of the Partnership for Learning: "If you're using the standards and using them creatively, there shouldn't be any cram sessions for the WASL."

Doing Their Best & r & A few years ago, in the South King County town of Covington, Regina Herron's daughter started having sleepless nights. She was in fourth grade, the first big year for the WASL. She would go to bed at 9 o'clock but come into her parents' room every hour, saying she couldn't sleep. Though her daughter was a good student, "She fretted about not being able to do well," Herron recalls. "I just kept telling her, 'Do your best.'"

Undoubtedly, Herron thinks, her daughter put some of that stress on herself. But she also got a clear message from teachers that the WASL was a big deal. When Herron volunteered in her daughter's third-grade class, she heard the teacher respond to students' work saying, "That's not WASL accepted," or, "Give me a WASL answer." For fourth grade, Herron put her in another school, where there was less pressure but which still encouraged students to attend an after-school "WASL academy." Students in fourth grade are typically 9 years old. This is one of the most troubling aspects about the way the WASL has played out: It causes intense anxiety -- a grown-up, your-worth-depends-on-your-performance kind of anxiety.

Holly Fudge, a school nurse in the Seattle suburban Northshore district, recalls a child coming into her office last year. "He was in tears, hysterical. He said, 'I failed my math test.' I said, 'Don't worry about it. It's the beginning of the year. The teachers just want to see where you are.' 'But I'm going to do terrible on the WASL,' he cried. I said, 'Oh sweetie, you're in third grade.'" Fudge's own son began sleepwalking when it came time to take his fourth-grade WASL.

The emphasis on the WASL only grows as kids progress through school and face the looming graduation requirement. Snohomish High School sophomore Ryland Penta, who with a friend constructed an anti-WASL Web site, says his teachers tell him, "If you don't pass, you're going to be stuck here for another year." The subject is brought up during routine class tests and homework assignments. Penta has reason to worry, because, although he's an A and B student, he gets panicky during tests and has failed the WASL in previous grades.

In the state PTA survey, parents recounted that their children were told that their future depended on the test, that they wouldn't be able to go to college without acceptable scores -- even, at one East King County high school, that their performance would affect surrounding property values.

One could argue that all this pressure might be palatable if it was truly increasing academic rigor and achievement. "It's fine to be obsessed with the test if it's for the right reasons," says the Partnership for Learning's O'Connor.

Mary Alice Heuschel, deputy superintendent of public instruction, doesn't exactly say that. She acknowledges that the pressure is out of hand. "We don't want it to be that way," she says. The solution, she thinks, lies in training teachers with better "tools and strategies." Heuschel adds, though, that one of the most effective ways of getting kids to relax about the test is to "give kids practice on the way questions are asked." This wouldn't seem to de-emphasize the WASL. In fact, it sounds like an exhortation to teach to the test. Heuschel responds: "If you are teaching the content of the WASL, you're teaching the standards, which is a good thing."

A conversation with a half-dozen sophomores in a Rainier Beach High School classroom suggests that WASL preparation can have the effect Heuschel describes. The sophomores, motivated students who are taking an Advanced Placement European history class, view the WASL as a potential barrier to college. They participated in a film project last year intended to show the test's ill effects. Yet as we talk, it becomes apparent that the school's big push to reverse a record of failure on the test, with such measures as "WASL Wednesdays," has boosted their confidence.

"It's made me feel that, yes, I can do it," says Alameda Taamu, who adds that he learned to go back and read questions until he understands them, to write more than one-word answers and to solve math problems without a calculator.

"It's going to put Rainier Beach on the map in terms of tests," Brittany Morris chimes in. And those dreams that Brittany has about the WASL, she says, are exciting ones, about going to college.

While that's an exhilarating voice of optimism from a school usually associated with depressing academic news, their teacher, Paula Scott, points out that these motivated kids are exceptional. Many more kids at Rainier Beach have been failing the WASL by wide margins in prior grades and see little chance of passing the 10th-grade test. She worries about a defeatist attitude that will propel these kids to drop out, not excel.

Pushing Social Studies Aside & r & The jury is still out on whether teaching to the test will benefit kids who need serious remedial help. What is inarguable, though, is that such teaching carries a range of negative effects. Susan Conners can tell you about some of them. She and her family moved from California to South King County's Normandy Park a few years back. Two of her three children had gotten what she considers a good educational foundation in California. But Nathan, her youngest child, was only in third grade when they arrived in Washington. "I regret bringing him here," Conners says.

"Nathan's education in elementary school has been far less broad," she explains. Since the WASL has primarily tested reading, writing, and math, she says, "The overwhelming part of his day has been spent in nothing but reading, writing, and math, over and over again -- and he hates it." One year, she saw that his schedule allowed a total of 45 minutes a day for health, social studies and science -- combined. "That's not OK with me," she told the principal. His response, according to Conners, was that his staff didn't have time to teach those things because they had to get kids ready for the WASL.

So when Nathan was in the sixth grade, Conners took a two-hour break from her accounting office, picked her son up at school an hour and a half early, and took him home to teach him social studies and science. They did experiments in the kitchen and traced the routes of explorers on the map.

Conners sees a class dimension to the WASL. She recognizes that some struggling students might need intensive practice on basic reading, writing and math skills: "Only a moron would argue that it's not important that kids be literate." Yet, she says, "If your kid is competent in those areas, your child is going to spend lots of time watching other kids learn those things." At least, she thinks, that is the case in districts like hers, Highline, which has a largely immigrant and working-class population. In California, which also has a student exit exam, she lived in a wealthier district that didn't have to worry so much about how students would do. She suspects richer districts in this state, too, have a more varied curriculum. She told a school administrator, "I've got to move to Bellevue if I want my son to learn history."

The exclusive focus on reading, writing, math, and now science, as that subject is phased in, also worries teachers, who are concerned that social studies and the arts will go by the wayside. According to Hasse, the WEA president, social studies teachers wonder if they should press for a WASL exam in their subject, too, even though many disagree with high-stakes testing as a way to get attention for that subject. Meanwhile, schools are telling students to cut arts classes and extracurricular programs so that they can take a WASL prep class or double doses of math and reading.

Shannon Rasmussen, a veteran middle-school teacher who is president of the Federal Way Education Association, talks about a student she had in a drama class: "He was quite talented verbally. I would say he was in the top 10 percent of the class. He was also a special-ed student." School administrators determined that he was in danger of failing the WASL. So they pulled him out of her drama class twice a week to go to a WASL prep class. On one level, that would seem to make sense. If the kid couldn't, say, read adequately, isn't that more important than his theater technique? On the other hand, Rasmussen says, "Here's this one thing that he's really good at," and his ability to do it is restricted.

Rasmussen also says students spent more time analyzing poetry and less time writing their own because that's what the WASL has them do. "Same thing with creative writing," she says. In fact, Rasmussen says, teachers discouraged students from writing essays too creatively. Teachers who debriefed kids after the WASL studied their scores and concluded that the formulaic five-paragraph essay--introductory paragraph, three paragraphs of supporting evidence, and a conclusion--was most likely to win a passing mark. "Sometimes kids can pass by being creative," Rasmussen says, "but they're a risk."

A risk? By being creative? Washington Middle School's Debra Tarpley, who works with immigrant students, laughs at the absurd way she believes she, too, has to teach. "No flourishes," she says, mimicking her message to kids. "Just keep to the program. Keep it simple. If you can't spell it, don't even try it. Use a smaller word."

State Deputy Superintendent Heuschel says teachers are mistaken in believing that the WASL rewards formulaic writing. "There's room for wonderful creativity," she says. But that begs the $64,000 question: Isn't it inevitable that teachers will teach narrowly to whatever it is they think will win high marks on the WASL as long as their fate, and that of their students, depends on those scores?

A Cookie-Cutter Education? & r & It's not that the WASL is a bad test. It represents, in fact, an innovative attempt to get away from the dull, fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice-style tests of old. Like any test, however, it emphasizes a particular set of skills. Prominent among them is showing your abilities through writing, drawing inferences from short passages of text and solving mathematical word problems. Bellevue Superintendent Riley, who has taken the test, says he found "a big part of it was, 'Do I know how to reason my way through a question?' That's an OK skill to have." But he doesn't think that it accurately assesses what students have learned in class. Nor does Riley feel that being able to solve those questions is a good gauge of whether kids will be successful in life. Riley, a pretty successful guy, found himself scratching his head as he tried to figure out what several questions wanted him to do.

"Something's out of whack," Riley continues. In his district, roughly two-thirds of last year's sophomores passed the WASL. "Well, hell, man, I've also got 85 percent of kids taking AP courses, my GPAs are high, my SAT scores have gone up 50 points in 10 years. So you ask, are you holding yourself accountable? I say, hell yes. But then you say 35 percent of your kids aren't going to graduate?"

Who is the WASL benefiting? As Tarpley of Washington Middle School observes, middle-class families are being squeezed out -- forced to school their kids elsewhere -- because they "want more than a basic, rigid education for their kids." Meanwhile, she says, "We're getting killed at the lower end." And sometimes even bright, motivated students wind up with their spirits squelched.

Tyler Stoken changed after he was suspended from his Aberdeen school for failing to complete that one WASL question. He developed a nervous habit of scratching himself, so sharply that he drew blood. Sitting in the car, he would rock back and forth, crying. "I'd never seen him crying like that before," says mom Amy Wolfe. He spent the following summer in counseling.

He also told his mom he was scared to go back to school because everybody would be mad at him for dragging down their scores. So the district sent an aide to work with him at home for the rest of the year. He's back at school now but has become insecure about his abilities. "He gives up on stuff a lot easier now," says his dad, Jason Stoken.

Meanwhile, Wolfe, who used to run a small trucking business with Tyler's dad but now stays home with Tyler and his brother, has become radicalized by her son's experience. She's hooked up with a group called Mothers Against the WASL, led by Spanaway resident and onetime candidate for state superintendent Juanita Doyon. Wolfe is planning to start a local chapter with the "girls," as she calls her compatriots.

Principal Olivia McCarthy, Wolfe says, has never apologized. (McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.) Wolfe did receive a written letter of apology, though, from Aberdeen Superintendent Marty Kay. The letter eloquently expresses some of the dangers of high-stakes testing. "We need to put tests in their proper perspective and help students understand the role of tests, so that our students are not made to think these tests measure their ability to learn, their potential to be successful or their value as people," it reads. "Education is failing when tests are more important than the students themselves."

Nina Shapiro is a staff writer at Seattle Weekly, where a version of this story first appeared. Inlander staff writer Joel Smith contributed to this report. To share a comment, send it

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