The WASL -- What's All the Fuss?


May 2, 2004

It was a sunny spring afternoon and five adults sat in a classroom studying up on a subject that many students would gladly skip, especially on such a nice day.

They were talking about the WASL.

Formally known as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, it's a high-stakes, high-profile exam that people seem to hear much about and understand very little. The test was launched in 1997, and for the past seven years school officials have spent each spring whispering "hush" as students work through their test books. By fall, another round of report cards hits the headlines.

In an effort to demystify one of the state's hottest topics, the Yakima Herald-Republic invited a panel of community members parents, business people, a city councilman to take a closer look at the WASL.

The plan was for the participants to sample questions from the 10th-grade exam, an experiment that would give regular folks an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. More so than testing their knowledge of 10th-grade math, the panel would test whether their assumptions about the test held true:

* "I assume it's something like a broad-spectrum, SAT-type test," said Neil McClure, a member of the Yakima City Council.

* "It's a big stress on the children and also on the teachers," said Lupe Fernandez, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Garfield Elementary in Toppenish.

* "I've heard a positive thing, which terrifies me also," said Peggy McDonald, a vice president of marketing at Tree Top Corp.:

"You can't guess because you have to show your work."

* "I guess I don't really have any idea," said Scot McElrea, branch manager for Yakima Valley Credit Union.

Also participating was Anna Hogan, director of the Yakama Nation Head Start program, who the Herald-Republic was not able to interview prior to test day.

So while a new batch of students confronted test anxiety in classrooms across the Valley this WASL season (student testing started April 19 and continues through Friday), the five participants slipped away from their jobs for four hours Wednesday afternoon to meet for an unofficial WASL academy at the Education Service District 105 in Yakima.

The ESD pulled together a team of WASL experts to conduct a workshop that provided participants with background on how test questions are developed and scored. Because of limited time and a photocopying snafu, the community panel could try just two test questions.

"It's such a different style of test than everybody is used to taking that just taking it and scoring it out of context could be misleading," explained Katherine Cove, assessment services coordinator for the ESD.

"We just really want an accurate view of the test," Cove said. "My concern is that if there is not an accurate view and if there are misconceptions that are reported, that harms teacher morale."

Cove said teachers across Washington have been "working their hearts out" to help students raise their test scores and the scores have indeed been rising.

Statewide, the percentage of sophomores passing the test's reading segment has grown from 51.4 percent in spring 1997 to 60 percent in 2003. During that same period, the percentage of 10th-graders passing the math portion increased from 33 percent to 39.4 percent.

Viewed another way, 40 percent of last year's sophomores failed the reading exam, and slightly more than 60 percent failed in math. The class of 2008 will need to pass the test in order to graduate.

"When teachers read negative reports in the paper and on TV, it's very demoralizing," said Cove.

Following the workshop, however, the participants' feelings toward the WASL were more positive than negative. The panelists reported feeling "impressed" with the exam and confident about its use as an effective accountability tool, though they were a bit apprehensive about the workshop:

"It was almost like a PR campaign to turn us into WASL evangelists," McDonald said. "I wish they'd gotten into more of the testing."

The panel tackled one seventh-grade math question:

The perimeter of the rectangle below is 26 units. When a and b are whole numbers, find a possible width (a) and length (b), and calculate the area of the rectangle. Show your work. ...

The definitions for perimeter (the distance around an object) and area (measure of the space within the object) were provided, though seventh-graders would be expected to know such things.

With one point for a correct answer six correct answers are possible and another point for accurate work, two of the panelists received both points and three received one point.

No gold stars, but the question did offer a chance to clear up some misconceptions.

"Somebody had told me that in the math section, your answers had to be in complete sentences, with a period," Hogan said.

She didn't think that was fair, so Hogan was pleased to learn it's not true. Some questions on the math and science tests ask students to show their work or provide a written explanation, but spelling and grammar don't count and students who have trouble reading can actually have those tests read to them, since the math and science segments aren't testing reading ability.

Also, the tests aren't timed. Unanswered questions do count the same as incorrect answers, so students are encouraged to take their time to complete all the questions and to take a guess if they aren't sure.

Following the workshop, panelists who once worried whether schools are "teaching to the test" reported feeling satisfied that students aren't just filling in circles and answering questions by rote.

"I was very impressed and I'm not concerned about that now, 99 percent not concerned," said McDonald. "It sounds like they're not teaching to a particular test. It sounds like they are teaching the thought process that they will be testing."

McClure agreed: "I feel that this WASL test is much less scary as far as 'teaching to the test' because if you teach to the WASL, you're teaching the thought process. This appears to be an attempt at becoming a more efficient way to teach."

To McElrea, the test boils down to increased accountability.

"It is a good thing," he said. "I had teachers who would give you an assignment and then fall asleep in class. I think the kids are really getting a lot more out of their education than when I was there."

McElrea remembers classes where the teacher would ask a question, one student would raise his hand and give the answer, and then they'd move on to the next question.

"And I'd have no idea how they got that answer," he said.

But McElrea, now the father of a fourth-grader who took her first WASL this year, doesn't think his old-school scenario is so common anymore.

"I think now there's a lot more discussion when the kids are giving answers, and I think that's a big thing," he said.

McDonald agreed that the test prompts teachers to make sure the entire class is up to par.

"With the measurement tools they have now, you just can't have slacker teachers," she said. "It would just be too evident."

Evident also, however, are lingering concerns about the test's ability to judge all students on an equal basis, evidence that the workshop's participants weren't completely converted to WASL evangelism.

"I asked if they (the presenters) felt it was a true measure of a child's intelligence and aptitude," said Hogan. "There are so many ways that people are better at doing things such as verbally or by manipulating items differences in the intelligences."

The panel's most dominating concern is for students who are still learning English, as well as for students whose parents have limited English skills. Fernandez said he conducted an informal survey of Spanish-speaking parents at Garfield Elementary School in Toppenish and reported that "most felt helpless, frustrated and confused" because they can't help their students prepare for the test.

"They have no information," Fernandez said. "There aren't any materials for non-English speaking parents."

McDonald wondered whether it would be a more fair assessment of students' abilities to test students with limited English in their native language.

"I'm sure it would be wildly expensive," she said. "I'm sure that would be an objection that many people would have. And yet this is such an important test that I feel the knowledge is more important than the language."

Seems like some of this test's toughest questions may not have a correct answer.

* Released questions from the WASL tests are available online at



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