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Students refuse to take WASL

Zach Mallove may have started a movement when he boycotted the Washington Assessment of Student Learning this week.

Mallove was among 14 Bainbridge High School sophomores who refused to take the test; nine are friends of his.

“They didn’t want to take it, and they came up to me when they heard I wasn’t,” Mallove said. “My mom had made up this form for me to notify the school, and I made them copies of it.”

Mallove, a straight-A student, lists objections to the test that range from the possible biases of test graders – essays make up a substantial portion of of the 16-hour-long test, given over a week each April to grades 4, 7 and 10 statewide – to the nervousness of classmates who don’t test well.

“It’s just like, you’re testing for a full week and it’s basically a waste of school,” Mallove said. “I think it’s just pointless. The teachers tell you the WASL is supposed to let you know how you’re doing, but you don’t even see the (graded) test. You get the score. That’s all.”

A score of “zero” is entered for each student who doesn’t take the test. But the 14 “refuseniks” in the sophomore class of about 300 will lower Bainbridge schools’ agregate score and statewide standing – second only to Mercer Island since the standardized tests were instituted in 1997.

That has Bainbridge school officials disappointed, at best.

“I think it’s extremely unfortunate that their actions will reflect adversely upon their classmates and their teachers,” said Ken Crawford, superintendent of Bainbridge schools. “Test results will be artificially deflated 5 to 10 percent. We always took pride in being in the top scores, and now we won’t be able to.”

Similar refusals by individual students were reported in various Puget Sound-area districts throughout the week, although state school officials reported hearing of no other organized boycotts.

Refusal to take the WASLs will not impede students’ ability to graduate from high school – yet (see sidebar). BI student’s WASL scores are included with transcripts sent to prospective colleges, but currently do not have any impact on admissions.

The WASL measures reading, writing, math and “listening” skills. Students aren’t compared to each other, but to a fixed academic standard based on “Essential Academic Learning Requirements” that educators and community members agreed – after years of research – that students must know.

The tests are part of a 15-year push for education reform, one goal of which is making standards consistent from school to school around the state. The WASLs are also a tool for “accountability,” as schools with consistently low scores risk state intervention.

Although there are grassroots groups around the state that oppose the tests – one statewide group is called Mothers Against the WASL – the Bainbridge district has only seen a few high school students each year decline to take them.

Bellevue and Issaquah, districts with similar demographics, report that no more than two or three sophomores refused the test this year.

Data from those districts is consistent with the statewide picture; last year 98.5 percent of Washington sophomores took the test.

“We knew there were a few dissatisfied (students),” Crawford said, “but not the significant numbers of this year.”

Mallove’s brother Nate, a seventh grader at Woodward Middle School, also declined to take the WASL this year.

His mother, Althea Paulson-Mallove, says she has never agreed with high-stakes testing, with one test measuring years of school work. But the decision to skip the WASLs was made independently by her sons, she said.

Nate Mallove was inspired by his research on a school project for a sixth-grade Sakai Intermediate School class.

“He said, ‘I’m exercising my right of political dissent,” Paulson-Mallove said. “I was supportive. I knew it as mandatory for the schools to administer the tests, but not mandatory for the kids to take it – yet.”

Paulson-Mallove was surprised to learn that 14 students had refused to test, although she had received several call from several parents who asked her how to go about opting out.

“They were parents of very top students,” Paulson-Mallove said. “They weren’t worried about their kids not passing the test. They were more concerned that their education was actually being hijacked by the test.”

While BHS Principal Dave Ellick said some groups believe the WASL will be challenged and stopped statewide, he argues that the trend to test is inescapable.

“We feel the opposite – just about every one of the 50 states has instituted testing,” Ellick said. “It’s the law of the land.”

For Paulson-Mallove, the high cost of administering and scoring the tests – $27 per student as opposed to $3 or $4 for other tests – is an unjustified expense, another unfunded mandate from the state.

“I want to make it clear my issue is not with Bainbridge schools,” she said.

“If we had enough money to pay teachers for what they do, enough money for the smaller class size we all know results in better education, I wouldn’t have such a problem with it.”

For Zach Mallove, that a personal decision not to test should make waves through the school district was unexpected.

“It kind of surprised me,” Mallove said, “how many people didn’t want to take it.”

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The class of 2008 – this year’s seventh-graders –

will have to earn a new “Certificate of Mastery” before they are handed a high school diploma.

To earn the certificate, student must pass all four components of the 10th-grade WASL – reading, writing, math and listening, with science added in 2010.

Last year, 82.2 percent of Bainbridge sophomores met the standard in reading; 69.9 percent in math; 76.2 percent inwriting; and 91.5 percent in “listening.” Statewide, 59.2 percent met the reading standard; 30.4 percent in math; 53 percent in writing and 83.6 percent in listening.

Students will have the opportunity to retest at several points before senior year – when and how many times has yet to be decided.

But it’s possible that students who fail the retakes will leave the high school without a diploma in hand.

“That’s what we understand,” Bainbridge High School Principal Dave Ellick said. “Some kids won’t get the high school diploma.”

The test is currently being examined for “reliability and accuracy” by the state education officials. Some question whether a single test can assess all students. There may be alternative ways for students to prove competence.

One unanswered question is where funding for re-takes of the expensive exam will come from.

Said Ellick: “Does the state provide the funding to meet the mandate? And we all know the answer.”

The state tests are reinforced and reflected in federal legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year. The legislation, “No Child Left Behind” is sometimes called “No Child Left Untested.”

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