The WASL test: What went wrong

Fourteen years after the Washington Legislature enacted education reform, which created the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, reality is a distortion of the vision. A former lawmaker who worked for three years on the legislation looks back, and looks ahead. First of two parts
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Graduation at Bainbridge High School. (Chuck Taylor)

Fourteen years after the Washington Legislature enacted education reform, which created the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, reality is a distortion of the vision. A former lawmaker who worked for three years on the legislation looks back, and looks ahead. First of two parts

It's September, which means another new school year and another round of news stories dealing the with saga of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Again this year, we are reassured by Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Terry Bergeson that scores are going up and all is well.

These stories hold special meaning for me. My wife and I are still deep into raising kids. Our daughter began middle school this month, and our son is a junior at Auburn High School. WASL scores are a hot topic when your kids, and your friends' kids, are the ones being scored. Additionally, 14 years ago I was part of a small group of Republicans and Democrats in the state House of Representatives who worked for three years to pass House Bill 1209, the bill that gave us the WASL and was supposed to produce comprehensive educational restructuring. Unfortunately, from that perspective, it is painfully clear to me, despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, how little we actually changed public education.

I was elected to the House in 1990, during the era of education reform. U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett's frightening report, A Nation at Risk, had dramatically elevated the issue of public education. Experts said our schools were too bureaucratic, standards were too low or non-existent, and kids graduated from high school needing remedial reading, writing, and math instruction from their employer or college. Across the country, reformers were striving to implement "performance-based education," a system built around establishing clear standards and requiring students to meet them. The new system would place more emphasis on outcomes - what kids are actually learning – rather than inputs such as money or time, and hold everyone accountable for the results.

In Washington, at that time, education was governed and driven by the Basic Education Act of 1977. Passed after the state Supreme Court ordered the state to enact a definition of what constituted a basic education, the law defined the state's obligation based on time spent in school – years, days, hours, credits for core subjects. All that was being measured was time spent in the system, not whether students were actually learning. Urged on by reformers and, critically, by Boeing and the rest of the business community, we set out to change that.

When I arrived in Olympia as a new member of the House Education Committee in 1991, a bipartisan group of veteran lawmakers was already working on the issue. The core group consisted of Democrats Kim Peery, Randy Dorn, and Greg Fisher, and Republicans John Betrozoff, Bill Brumsickle, and Jean Marie Brough. I joined in as a very junior member, and for the next three years we worked to pass major education reform. Our goal was nothing less than fundamental educational restructuring.

Our vision was a public education system that established clear minimum academic standards that everyone could understand, tested students to ensure they were meeting the standards, held everyone in the system accountable for the results, and freed educators from burdensome state regulations by repealing all the old bureaucratic time-based requirements: standards, assessments, accountability, deregulation, and local control. In spring 1993, after a long legislative struggle, House Bill 1209 passed with all our desired elements included. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.

HB 1209 defined a new "performance-based education system" as "a system in which a significantly greater emphasis is placed on how well students are learning, and significantly less emphasis on state-level laws and rules that dictate how instruction is to be provided."

The bill then set new "learning goals" that would serve as the basis for the standards and assessments. All students would be expected to read with comprehension and write with skill, and know and apply the core concepts of math, of social, physical, and life sciences, of civics and history, and of geography, arts, health, and fitness.

The specifics of how to meet these goals was turned over to a new entity, the Commission on Student Learning (COS). COS was given three tasks: define state standards (Essential Academic Learning Requirements) in each of the goal subject areas, design state assessment tests (which became known as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL), and design an accountability system.

We knew the key to really changing public education was accountability. Just forcing kids to take another test wouldn't change anything – there had to be accountability for results. So we directed the Commission on Student Learning to design and send to the Legislature an accountability system that would include financial assistance to schools that were struggling, regular reports to the Legislature and the community, a system to allow the state to "intervene in schools and school districts in which significant numbers of students fail to learn the Essential Academic Learning Requirementss," and a financial "awards system" for school buildings that demonstrate improvement in WASL scores.

Most important, students would be required to pass the high school assessment before being allowed to graduate. The bill anticipated that most students would pass the test in 10th grade. Those who did would move on to individual "educational pathways," programs that would prepare them for college or the workforce. Those that didn't pass would receive assistance until they were able to meet this minimum standard.

The job of deregulation was given to another committee, the Joint Select Committee on Educational Restructuring. This special committee of House members and senators was directed to "review all laws that might inhibit the new performance-based education system" and make a report to the full Legislature on what laws should be changed or repealed.

In terms of deregulation and local control, we couldn't have made our intent more clear. The bill said our goal was "a public school system that provides more flexibility for school boards and educators in how instruction is provided." Significantly, the section on the Essential Academic Learning Requirements said the new state standards "shall not limit the instructional strategies used by schools or school districts or require the use of special curriculum." We wanted to set the bar but turn local schools loose to achieve the standards however they saw fit.

Standards, assessments, accountability, and deregulation were the core elements of the bill, but it truly was an attempt at complete restructuring. H.B. 1209 created another new committee, which was charged with recommending to the Legislature "a new funding model for the common school system." The bill called for the creation of a new statewide technology plan, included elements regarding teacher training and early learning, and created the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, a clearinghouse within the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to help schools with reform, especially in the area of fostering parental involvement.

H.B. 1209 set clear deadlines. The Essential Academic Learning Requirements for reading, writing, and math were to be in place by 1995, and for science, civics, history, geography, arts, health, and fitness, by 1996. The tests for reading, writing, and math would begin in the 1995-96 school year, and for the other subjects the next year. Action on deregulation and the new funding model were supposed to occur during the 1995 legislative session. It was anticipated that all the kinks would be worked out of the standards and assessments by 2000, which is when all the accountability measures - including the mandatory graduation requirement – would take effect.

None of those deadlines was met. In fact, a look at the core elements of the bill show that virtually none of the reforms we passed ever actually became a reality in the classroom.

  • Funding: Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent helping teachers and school districts adjust to what was supposed to be a whole new education system, but the proposal for a new funding model went nowhere. Gov. Chris Gregoire has launched another process, "Washington Learns," to again study the issue of education funding.
  • Standards and assessments: Essential Academic Learning Requirements in the various subjects have been rolled out, pulled back, changed, modified, and delayed over and over in the past 14 years. Today, students are being tested in only four areas – reading, writing, math, and science. Standards for civics, geography, history, arts, and health and fitness are supposed to be ready in 2008 and 2009, 13 years after the original deadline.
  • Deregulation and local control: The deregulation process, which was to begin with the new Joint Select Committee, failed to gain traction. Five years after the original deadline, then-Gov. Gary Locke tried to revive the issue of education deregulation by highlighting it during his 2001 State of the State address. He sent the Legislature a bill on the subject. It failed to even move out of committee. Worse, the WASL process has resulted in far less, rather than more, local control. SPI Bergeson has responded to low test scores by insisting that districts need to do a better job teaching to the test, urging them to align curricula more closely to the Essential Academic Learning Requirements. The SPI is now working to standardize math curricula across the state. The state standards and test are driving curricula, and virtually everything else that happens in our local schools - the exact opposite of what the authors of H.B. 1209 intended.
  • Accountability: Accountability is the linchpin of reform. Without it, there is no paradigm shift. The state doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to schools to help, and we have issued the required reports on WASL scores, but we are still waiting for real accountability.
  • The Commission on Student Learning and the Legislature failed to act to create state intervention mechanisms or a building-based reward system, as required by H.B. 1209. In 1999, the Legislature created another committee, the so-called A+ Commission, and gave it the job of studying and reporting on accountability. In 2001, the A+ Commission sent an accountability bill to the Legislature. It failed. In 2001, Gov. Locke urged the creation of a new, more-accountable teacher compensation system based on "knowledge, skill, and performance." His proposal failed. In 2003, in its annual report, the A+ Commission again urged the Legislature to enact a building-based award program. Nothing happened. In 2005, the Legislature abolished the commission and gave the State School Board the responsibility to look at accountability. The board formed a committee and is studying the issue. They promise recommendations by the end of the year.

    Most importantly, the state has failed to enforce the key reform, the mandatory graduation requirement. The deadline has been pushed back over and over again. Supposedly, the class of 2008 is required to pass the reading and writing portions of the WASL while the state continues to modify the math and science portion and finish work on the remainder of the standards. In reality, the Legislature has authorized broad alternatives to passing the WASL. Students can submit their scores on other tests, such as the SAT, they can argue that their grades in reading and math were similar to students who passed the WASL, or they can submit a "collection of evidence" consisting of course work to demonstrate they have met the standards.

    Fourteen years after the passage of H.B. 1209, we are still measuring time under the Basic Education Act rules and regulations, state standards and assessments are still not fully in place, students can still graduate without passing the high school assessment, and no one is being held accountable when kids fail the tests we do have.

    Why did the H.B. 1209 process fail so spectacularly? What does all this mean in the real world of education? Where do we go from here? More tomorrow.

    Part 2: How to fix Washington's graduation standards.  

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    About the Authors & Contributors

    Chris Vance

    Chris Vance

    Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.