One week after taking office as the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn unveiled his plan to scrap the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) by spring 2010 in favor of the Washington Comprehensive Assessment Program (WCAP). “Not so fast,” was the state legislature’s response, which passed Senate Bill 5414 on March 4. The bill, introduced by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chair of Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education, implements the WASL legislative work group’s recommendations — changes she says share “common ground” with Dorn’s proposal. The bill is now moving through the house.
Despite some criticism from the legislature, Dorn has contended from the beginning that he has the power to replace the WASL unilaterally, and still contends that the legislation will not impact his efforts. “We are moving forward with our proposed changes to the assessment system,” Chris Barron, Dorn spokesperson said. “Because the Legislature’s legislation is so closely aligned with what we are already working on, it won’t affect our work.” While the RCW does provide for the SPI to redesign the assessment, it also stipulates that the education committees of the house and senate have the option to review the assessment and proposed modifications before any changes are adopted.
The legislature would also have to approve any funding for a new test, including helping ensure all school districts had an adequate number of computer workstations and connections to the Internet to administer the test. While OSPI estimates computerized testing would eliminate printing 1.7 million test booklets in 2009, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators, 40 percent of 150 school chiefs at a recent meeting said their schools were not prepared to give state exams online, and they would need fiscal help. However, according to Dorn, “Our data shows that more than 70 percent of the school buildings in the state report having a computer lab of 20 or more computers.”
Concerns about replacing the WASL with a computerized WCAP test to assess writing skills have also surfaced. “I think it would be difficult for a computer to score writing,” Shannon Fairbanks, Key Peninsula Middle School literacy teacher, said. “Writing should be very personal and show a person’s ability to think critically about a topic. Other than setting up the program to score based on ‘buzzwords’ in a student’s writing, how would it be able to be scored, unless it was a basic conventions, parts of speech multiple-choice type test?”
Scrapping the WASL is fully supported by the Washington Education Association (WEA), who represent teachers, and parent groups, such as Mothers Against WASL. While the new testing may resolve some of the objections about the time testing takes away from teaching to administer the tests and the complexity of the tests, some of the objections will remain. One frequently cited objection is the “high stakes” of the 10th grade test that requires proficiency in order to graduate. However, local students don’t seem concerned. Mackenzie Johnson, a junior at Peninsula High School said she isn’t worried about taking the WASL.
“You can take segmented math if needed and you can retake it each year until you pass,” she said. “I took it all my sophomore year and passed. I cared more about having to go to school for a week when everyone else got to sleep in.”
Ryan Deegan is a sophomore at PHS and he agreed. “I am a bit anxious about any math test, so the math portion makes me a little nervous. Overall, the math portion makes me worry but the fact that it is a WASL test doesn’t worry me at all,” he said. Most students seem to believe that with the option to retake the test they can pass.
“I can retake it if I need to,” said 15- year-old David Larson, a sophomore. “ I don’t worry because I’ve heard it’s not that hard. The science portion does worry me. Everyone says it’s hard and a lot of people fail it.”
The proficiency requirement is not likely to go away, at least under the current No Child Left Behind Act. Even if the act is rescinded or reformed by President Obama, Gov. Christine Gregoire and Dorn are strong proponents of the requirement. “I strongly believe in high standards and in using the reading and writing tests as part of our graduation requirements,” Dorn said. Gregoire has also spoken out about maintaining high standards. “The WASL is tougher for some students than others and can be a bump on the road to graduation,” Gregoire said.
“Different students learn at a different pace — and we must acknowledge that — but we must maintain a high standard of learning for all our students.”
Critics say the standards are beyond what the average student can be expected to achieve, particularly in math and science. However, longstanding proponents of assessment testing are likely to oppose any changes that might make the WASL “less rigorous.” According to Dorn’s timeline, the WCAP would replace the WASL in spring 2010. Computerized testing would begin as an option in 2010, with the goal of it becoming a statewide requirement by 2012. The feasibility of computerized scoring of the writing test would be investigated in 2010, with hopes of being online in 2011. The Measurements of Student Progress for grades 3-8 would be given twice a year in spring and fall in order to track growth, while the High School Proficiency Exams for grade 10 would be given once in the spring to measure proficiency.