The flap last week over state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn'ês proposal to postpone the use of WASL-like math and science tests as requirements for high school graduation reveals a lot about what'ês wrong with the test-driven 'êstandards'ê movement in public education and — thanks to Dorn and the Legislature — contains the germ of a better approach.
Dorn'ês plan was immediately excoriated by Seattle Times editors, the League of Education Voters, and the Washington Roundtable, the business organization that'ês been a huge advocate for the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) for 15 years. 'êDorn'ês proposal 'êdoesn'êt appreciate the role that math and science play in our economy, and our future,'ê said Lisa Macfarlane'ê of the League, according Linda Shaw'ês story in the Times.
The Times simply said, 'êAnother delay is unacceptable.'ê
That no one who made the news bothered to ask why it helps to force kids — the ones who may not be interested in math or sciences but gobble up history, literature, or art — to pass tests in these subjects to graduate from high school demonstrates how deeply and uncritically the standards mantra is held.
To put this in perspective, it'ês important to look at why the standards movement, a national phenomenon, came about. Twenty years ago, Washington legislators — like those in many other states, other politicians, influential citizens such as those represented by the Roundtable, and a lot of just plain folks — had lost faith in the public schools. (That hasn'êt changed much.) Student achievement was widely believed to have declined and somebody ought to be held responsible. So, in 1993 when Dorn was chairman of the House Education Committee, the Legislature approved a plan for new statewide tests in reading, writing, math, and science that would set standard levels of achievement that every child should meet. The result was the WASL, and the justifiable controversy over the educational value of the test-driven approach that continues today.
One reason for the test was to compare schools and school districts so state officials could tell which ones best served their students and communities. Previous multiple-choice tests were not seen as responsive to the standards developed by educator committees in the 1990s. That the WASL was also made a graduation requirement beginning with reading, writing, and math (subsequently delayed) for the class of 2008, has turned out to be a profound example of blaming, even penalizing, the victims.
There is hope, though, noted in Dorn'ês op-ed in last Wednesday'ês Times. Last year, in addition to calling for new math and science learning standards, the Legislature ordered new 'êend-of-course'ê tests that would replace the math WASL as a graduation requirement.
The downside, unfortunately, is that the new 'êlearning standards'ê will again be developed by a committee and the tests will be written, supposedly, to measure against them. The upside, a small but thankfully back-to-the-future step, is the potential for restored focus on subject-matter courses, the actual content of the curriculum. With any luck, that will take us closer to the only graduation requirements we really need: Our kids should attend school and get passing grades in the specified type and number of classes. This simple approach fits nicely with the Board of Education'ês CORE 24 plan to increase the minimum number of credits for high school graduation from 20 to 24 spread across the humanities, sciences, math, art, and electives.
Sooner or later, this approach will help us see that using the WASL and tests like it for graduation requirements has lowered rather than raised 'êstandards.'ê After all, with any math or science test that every student is expected to pass (consider the corollary, that some percentage of kids will never be allowed a diploma), the bar will be set so low as to be trivial, an insult to the intelligence of anybody interested in the subject, and an unnecessary burden to those who aren'êt. Every parent knows our kids are different, that they will excel down different pathways. Schools, particularly high schools, are where they get to experiment, decide what'ês dull and what'ês fascinating.
All of which takes us back to the classroom and the origins of the standards movement. Remember, across the country legislators and others had lost confidence in the schools. They saw low achievement and wondered what the heck was going on, what was being taught. They saw that curriculum, course content, was all over the map and of — to say the least — uneven rigor. In response, they mandated external standards, general standards that would apply to every kid in every school. The result was the WASL.
Another response came from educators who, naturally, figured that what'ês offered in the classroom is ultimately most important. This group — notable among them Bellevue'ês former superintendent, the late Mike Riley — found that the College Board'ês advanced placement (AP) curriculum in humanities, math, and the sciences worked pretty well. Seattle also offered a good selection of AP courses at Garfield and is now expanding their use in its other high schools.
The rigorous curriculum of AP courses and similar approaches such as the International Baccalaureate program works well for all students. It challenges the talented and those especially interested and exposes others to effective coverage of the subject. What more do we need to ask of high schools, really?
Of course, the Legislature will still want some kind of test so schools and school districts can be compared and the weak identified. And that'ês fine. They or the federal government can fund the expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been given to a representative sampling of students in schools across the country since the 1970s. Or the state can require (and pay for) all students to take the SAT or three or four of the SAT II subject tests that support the CORE 24 requirements. Doing either of those things, officials would surely know how our schools are doing. And they don'êt have to make it a graduation requirement.