The oft-maligned math section of the high school Washington Assessment of Student Learning, better known as the WASL, is a dead test walking. By spring 2011, it may not even exist anymore. But until its demise, all teens must take the test at least once if they want a diploma. And schools are scrambling to get that message to sophomores just days before testing gets under way this week.
“The legal requirements for graduation are still there, and we are hoping to get clear information to parents and students,” said Mary Waggoner, a spokeswoman for the Everett School District, which last week sent out more than 2,000 letters to parents of students who have yet to pass the test.
Swirling news reports about the state's plans to ditch the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning), as well as late-breaking legal changes that let juniors and seniors skip retests, have combined for lots of confusion — more than usual, that is.
In simple terms for this year's backpacked minions:
If you're a high school sophomore, mark your calendars for April 13 and 14: that's when you're obliged to take the WASL math test, like it or lump it.
If you're a junior or senior, and didn't pass the test as a sophomore, you can skip it. But be sure you take math classes through your senior year (and pass them) if you want a diploma.
Students are still required to pass the reading and writing sections of the WASL to graduate.
Meanwhile, newly elected state Superintendent Randy Dorn is planning an overhaul of the entire standardized testing system, which includes annual reading, writing, math, and science tests starting in third grade. The new tests are likely to be shorter, with less written responses, and offered on computers.
For high school math, plans call for a move to end-of-course exams. Instead of taking one big math test as sophomores, teenagers instead would take a series of four math tests, in areas such as algebra and geometry, as they learn the skills.
There are some ways around the current math test for the conscientious objector (or slacker). There is no formal “opt out” choice at the high school level. But students can sit for the test, and do just that — sit there. Students also could refuse to take the test altogether, by not showing up to school that day, and wait for whatever replacement is coming down the pike.
But there are drawbacks to both these routes, which queasy educators are quick to point out. “I always tell kids and parents that attempting the WASL is always a good idea because you can only win,” said Terry Edwards, chief academic officer for the Everett district.
Meanwhile, there is still a math graduation requirement, even if the WASL part of that equation has been watered down. Passing the test is certainly the simplest way to check off the requirement. Beyond that, students have to attempt the test once to access any of the alternative means of meeting the standard — by using SAT scores instead, for example, or compiling a portfolio of rigorous class work.
Then, too, no one knows what the new math tests will look like. Plans call for end-of-course exams, but actual details are few. “Everything I hear is the intent of the new test is to maintain the same rigor as the current test, so if that is true there would be no advantage to waiting,” Edwards said.
Of course, some of this is self-defense for schools. Refusing to take the tests will lead to zero scores that affect the school's average and, in turn, spark possible sanctions against the school under federal education law. Last spring, nearly 2,000 sophomores either refused to take the test or didn't show up. If their scores, and the zero scores of other students, were thrown out the state passing rate would have gone up more than 3 percent.
Most lawmakers and state education staff agree now that the WASL math test as it now stands is a goner. In many respects, the test hasn't achieved what business lobbyists and lawmakers hoped it would. The scores are largely ignored by state universities. And in community colleges, nearly half of recent high school grads are still taking remedial math classes, a figure that's remained steady since 2004.
The class of 2008 was to have been the first to have to pass the test to earn a diploma. But after their first run at the exam, in spring 2006, when barely half of the class managed to pass, the state pulled up on the reins quick. The class of 2013, this year's eighth-graders, are currently on the docket as the re-inaugural class to face the testing requirement. At least, for now.
One thing is for certain: There's little chance of the graduation requirement going away, with support from Gov. Chris Gregoire as well as Dorn. College professors also see a need, said Peg Balachowski, chair of the math department at Everett Community College. “There should be a standard statewide for students and what they should be able to do in math when they leave high school,” she said. Instructors like her “need to know they'll be competent at a certain level when they reach my door.”
In the meantime, lawmakers fixed the books so that juniors and seniors who didn't retake the test after their sophomore year — thinking they were in the clear — won't have to worry unnecessarily about missing commencement.
“The assessment system has always been a controversial issue,” said state Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, who oversees issues like these as chair of the House Education Committee. “We're trying to get it right. And in the process of getting it right, it looks like the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing sometimes.”
The latest changes come too late for one Seattle mom, whose son graduated on time from Franklin High School last year but only after a confusing bout with the WASL math requirement that involved canceled summer vacation plans and switching out of a creative writing class mid-semester.
“It's a crazy system,” Stephanie Ragland said. Her son passed the math test on his third attempt, squeaking by with just four points to spare. But they didn't find out until deep into the school year, after he had already been switched into a pre-calculus class as a safeguard in case he failed the test again.
The teen is now at Northern Arizona University, where despite passing the WASL he will still be taking a remedial math class. He otherwise is posting good grades and made the most recent Dean's List. The mother says she is hopeful about the changes promised by Dorn, for whom she voted. But they won't mean much if the tests remain a condition for graduation, she said. “As a parent, I feel very unsettled as we continue along this path,” Ragland said.
Ragland's younger son, a Franklin sophomore, is now on deck to take the WASL math test. She gave him the option of skipping school that day. But he said no — he wants to try.
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