New state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn won partly because he rode the coattails of this election'ês big theme — change — into a race against a three-term incumbent, Terry Bergeson. But for Dorn and the voters, change in the supertendent'ês race also had real meaning: significantly change or get rid of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the WASL. Let'ês hope Dorn has the smarts and strength to go beyond just tweaking the thing and can actually do away with it.
Keep in mind that the WASL is not required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (which is certain to be changed under President Obama). Some test is, but not necessarily the WASL. So Dorn has room to move and he can pick a test or tests that are fairer and better measure school quality and student accomplishment.
The door is now open to change the type of test from one that is based on a particular educational philosophy (the ultimate problem with the WASL and most tests of its ilk) to one that is content-based. At root, what'ês wrong with the WASL is that it is designed in response to the dominant educational philosophy of the past 40 or so years — the 'êstudent-centered,'ê 'êdiscovery'ê learning that de-emphasizes content knowledge in favor of critical thinking. That's a short-hand description and a lot can be said about this approach, but what it amounts to is the contention that you can make profound decisions while looking at a spreadsheet in which every cell is blank.
To get away from this style of testing, Dorn should switch immediately at the high school level to the SAT subject tests (formerly the SAT IIs). These are good if not excellent content tests, as are the advanced placement (AP) tests. Such tests would provide a stunningly clear picture of what our high school graduates know. Imagine our high school kids taking four SAT subject tests: English Lit., U.S. History, Mathematics (choice of two levels), and one of three possible science tests, biology, chemistry, or physics. It would be a brand new but really old and traditional world of knowledge that you can bet Barack Obama mastered on his way through school.