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Does WASL past the test?

Original Article

WASL scores are here and the news is mostly good. You may guess by now that the WASL (pronounced WAHsil) is not something you do in December. It’s the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. It includes brain-teasing math questions, interesting literature selections to read and critique, demanding listening problems that require some note-taking skills, among other things. It makes you think. Some kids find it fun.
The scores tell the public how schools are doing. If we remember to consider the challenges individual schools face, they serve as a good rough guide. Soon, we will use scores to identify schools needing assistance and those deserving of reward. Along with other measures, that makes some sense too.

Finally, it will become a graduation requirement. By 2008, even a straight-A senior must show a passing score (cruelly called the “cut” score) on each and every WASL subject tested. The high-school test is offered in 10th grade. This is a stroke of genius. Students who pass can then go on to more challenging courses. Those who do not pass have plenty of time to work harder and take the test again.

That means that by 2006, 10th-grade students are taking a “high stakes” test. Their lives and futures depend on it. Even though a child can retake the test, failure means demoralization, and that may mean another dropout. There won’t be a next time for some kids. The state has less than six years to consider some special issues before we deny a child a diploma based on WASL scores:

Reliability

Two trained scorers should produce the same result. The Seattle Times recently described the sweat-shop conditions for scoring this test. In the writing test, for example, 240,000 children write 410,000 essays, taking over 800,000 hours to do so. Scorers average 2.5 minutes on each essay. State experts say that two scorers will assign the same score to a WASL subtest at least 96 percent of the time. That’s great accuracy when we are comparing schools (provided we take into account each school’s special circumstances). A few disagreements on scores won’t upset a school’s average that much.

But is it great when the WASL becomes a graduation requirement? The American Educational Research Association (AERA) standards for high-stakes testing urge that reliability be examined for each separate use of test scores. Use as a graduation requirement is new. If WASL scorers give mostly 3’s, that’s high agreement, but what’s the agreement for students who are on the borderline of a passing score? It’s probably less than 96 percent. The state’s Web site doesn’t say.

The state now plans two scorers per test, by next year. For the child teetering on the edge of failure, however, we need even more. There should be a way to investigate possible scoring errors, test confidentiality notwithstanding. There should be alternative “second chance” tests for some kids, possibly with more verbal response allowed. The WASL is biased heavily in favor of students with good writing ability, even in the math section.

Validity

A valid test measures what it is supposed to measure. For example, the test should measure what schools teach. The WASL gets high marks here. Teams of teachers examine WASL responses and the required instruction in schools, and help the state make sure they align. However, AERA advises that tests valid for one use may be invalid for another.

When used for graduation, we should ask, for example, whether the standard for passing scores reflect what successful adults actually can do. We should know how successful high-school graduates score on this test. We don’t. We should try the test on successful bus drivers, firemen, computer programmers, teachers, legislators and journalists – anyone worthy of a high school diploma. We haven’t.

Chances are that many successful adults will “flunk” one subject or another. Many successful people can’t do math or can’t write a good essay. Yet, they succeed because they compensate by being good at other things. Should we deny a high-school diploma to a teenager who does the same? At present, the passing scores do not allow a student to compensate for a weakness in one subject area by doing well in another; or by doing well on any other criteria.

Helping identify a child’s needs

To be fair to kids, we must identify younger children who will need help to pass the graduation test. This means developing a new test, or carefully evaluating the use of existing tests, such as the fourth- and seventh-grade WASLs. Some of these tests should be used as early warning indicators. Such a test should also be sensitive enough to allow teachers, students and parents to identify student strengths and weaknesses.

Long before denying a student a diploma, educators must offer the child every opportunity to make the cut. To safeguard scarce resources wisely, assistance probably should be targeted to kids in need, not to schools. Vouchers for summer school and after-school instruction, for example, would enable families to choose extra help for their children from the school, or from specialized sources.

Equity

All kids can learn. Yet, at present, kids who are white and wealthy do relatively well on all the tests we use. Other kids do not always do so well. This is a serious challenge to the education establishment. The use of any test as a graduation requirement makes it even more so. The gap between groups is closing, but not fast enough. Further, the top group of students should continue to improve, which means those near the bottom have even further to go to catch up. If by 2008 this gap persists, it is the grownups who have failed, not the kids.

Intellectual standardization

What you test is what you get, when it comes to high-stakes testing. For example, experience in other states shows scores going up each year in the early years. That’s because schools figure out what is covered and change teaching strategies. They don’t teach to the test, but they work on a sensible curricular realignment.

This is mostly good, but if it’s overdone, we lose something vital: eccentricity. The geniuses in our society – Einstein, Kennedy, King, Lincoln – are often eccentric in one way or another. It’s a quality to nurture, not to stifle. One must be always on guard that there is room in the classroom and elsewhere for the unexpected urge to ignore the basics to pursue some totally new and crazy idea.

Dr. Patricia Lines, an attorney and education researcher, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and a member of Washington state’s Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission.