As a third-grade teacher at Lynnwood Intermediate School, Tom White is in a unique position to understand the anxiety that parents and children have about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test.
White says his own third-grade son "is freaking out over having to take the WASL," even though the test isn't given until next spring.
In fact, White notes, the introduction of mandatory standardized testing, including the WASL, in Washington State's public schools is one of the biggest changes he has seen in his 22 years of teaching.
Public school students are introduced to their first mandated test in second grade, when they are given an oral reading assessment. In third grade, official WASL testing begins, focused on reading and math skills, followed by subsequent WASL tests on a combination of subjects (reading and math every year, plus writing and science in some years) from fourth through eighth grade.
The impetus for this mandatory testing began in 1993, when the Washington State Legislature passed a bill calling for new learning and teaching standards, know as Essential Academic Learning Requirements, or EALRs. The standards spell out what students should know and be able to do, from kindergarten through grade 10. The first WASL testing began in 1997 with fourth graders, and has been gradually phased in to include testing each year for students in grades 3-10.
White admits that standardized testing has forced the teaching profession to get more focused, compared to the 1970s and 1980s when "there was a lot more fluff in the curriculum and teachers were more autonomous." He doesn't view the WASL as a panacea, however. Preparing for and taking the test uses weeks of classroom time and doesn't test for skills many parents would consider essential components of a balanced education, including fitness, social studies, art and music, he adds.
Because the WASL "tests at chronological grade level," White remains concerned about the WASL's inability to accommodate the individual path of each child's learning. For a child who is already falling behind and feeling anxious about school, the process of preparing for and taking the test can be terrible discouraging, he adds.
Nonetheless, the WASL is a fact of life for children attending state public schools -- and their parents. If students are particularly anxious, parents can have them opt out of taking the test. Children with special needs can take an alternative test, known as the Washington Alternative Assessment System (WAAS), in which the child's teacher and a special education teacher collaborate to build a portfolio showing that child's work.
Private schools are exempt from the WASL test under state law, notes Meade Thayer, the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools (PNAIS). The association's membership includes 93 independent schools in eight states.
"Our schools... determine their own curriculum, and many do not choose to participate in the WASL," Thayer says. "The vast majority of PNAIS schools choose to participate in some kind of standardized achievement test including the Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP4) test, a multiple choice tests that covers a wide range of subjects including math and reading."
Mac Culver, Ph.D., elementary administrator for Cedar Park Christian School in Bothell, says that every Cedar Park student takes the Stanford Achievement Test 10th Edition annually. "The Stanford was selected for a number of reasons, not the least being it is viewed educationally as one of the most complete and comprehensive tests available," Culver says.
One public school teacher who sees the WASL's value is Stephanie Wright, a second-grade teacher at Auburn's Gildo Rey Elementary School. "The goals and the objectives are very well thought out," Wright says, adding "I find a lot of comfort in knowing where I should be driving my kids to academically."
Auburn School District teachers work creatively and make an extra effort to prepare students for the test, she adds. Last year, with the district's support, Wright and five other second- grade teachers spent over 1,000 hours rewriting the activities that go with the students' reading series to better align the material with WASL standards.
Also supporting the WASL is the Partnership for Learning, a non-profit organization of business and community leaders that works to increase public awareness and understanding about Washington's efforts to improve education quality.
WASL testing "helps parents know, regardless of where they live in the state, that their kids are getting a foundation of knowledge and skills that teachers, community leaders and business leaders believe are important for every child to have," says Molly O'Connor, Partnership for Learning's director of communications. The WASL, O'Connor adds, is a "good, common, objective measuring stick for every student in the state. Along with the standards it tests, it gives a consistency to Washington's classrooms that we haven't had before."
For children who are traditionally underserved, such as those for whom English is a second language, who have special needs or are economically disadvantaged, "the WASL and the standards now make sure nobody will overlook their learning, because everyone will be tested," she notes. Responding to criticism that the WASL is too focused on basic skills, O'Connor responds that every child will need those skills to succeed. "Kids who want to be artists still need to learn by reading art textbooks," she says.
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.
Elementary testing resources
Teacher Tom White recommends that parents read Stacey Neble's WASL Practice Makes Perfect and also visit the Washington State Office of Public Instruction website for "released" WASL items so their children can take the practice tests.
The Washington State PTA (WSPTA) sponsors the Parent-To-Parent program, a workshop designed to help parents understands the state's mandatory testing programs and mandatory graduation requirements. For more information, visit the website, call WSPTA at 1-800-562-3804, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the November, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.