WASL: not really for all the marbles

It was supposed to become the be-all and end-all of high school learning, the exam that would demonstrate conclusively a student’s mastery of essential subjects.

Instead, in the very year that the Washington Assessment of Student Learning is supposed to get real teeth – pass it, or you won’t get diploma – it becomes just another test. Bainbridge High School sophomores this week are hunkered down under the proctor’s watchful eye, the first class (2008) for whom proficiency on the WASL is a graduation requirement. Except it isn’t. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

How the exam went from an all-the-marbles requirement to a much lower-stakes affair, that story was years in the making. Work on the WASL was already under way when the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation required every state to adopt a standardized measure of learning. Critics countered that it would be ridiculous to judge a student’s four-year high school experience on the results of a single test – in their second year, no less – but classroom instruction has nonetheless been fine-tuned to gear students up for one carefully crafted, sink-or-swim exam.

In the end, it became a matter decided more by politics than education. Faced with the reality that a huge percentage of students would be denied diplomas – statewide WASL results are routinely woeful, with just 48 percent of Washington sophomores able to pass the math battery last year, 65 percent in writing and 73 percent in reading – and likely lawsuits by angry parents, the state blinked. Legislators this year approved alternatives by which kids can demonstrate competency should they stumble over the WASL on their second try. Students can show a portfolio of their work, keep their grades level with peers who pass the test, or simply retake portions of the exam up to four times. Which puts local schools more or less back where they started, with students demonstrating their smarts in a variety of ways and then passing into adult life beneath the mortarboard en masse.

It would probably be too reductive to ask how many millions of state and local tax dollars have been spent developing the exam that has suddenly lost much of its meaning. You have to wonder what could have been achieved by dedicating that money to lowering class sizes, attracting top teaching talent with higher salaries, improving instructional programs or making other changes where it counts: in the classroom.

To be sure, having a statewide standardized competency test does give a community a good idea of how its schools stack up against those elsewhere. (Islanders can take heart; last year’s BHS sophomores fared wildly better than their Washington peers, with 78 percent acing the math test, 86 percent in writing and 91 percent in reading.) Beyond that, the WASL’s real utility is now as a measure of individual learning, one that will help teachers and parents identify where each student needs more instruction. The test is administered in the fourth, seventh and 10th grades, with a new science battery for fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders; the results can guide remediation and extra attention those who lag in particular disciplines.

Who knows who’s going to pay for that, as per-pupil education spending in this state is abysmal, WASL or no. But helping kids learn – not just demonstrating that they haven’t – is what it should have been about in the first place.

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