Cheating on the test

Since states like Washington routinely dilute tests for high school graduation, why do we keep on with the WASL? A case for killing it.
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Washington Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn

Since states like Washington routinely dilute tests for high school graduation, why do we keep on with the WASL? A case for killing it.

A front page New York Times'ꀙ story Tuesday (Jan. 12) revealed that many of the 26 states where statewide tests are required for high school graduation have systematically lowered their standards so more kids can pass, and graduate. Washington state is singled out among the guilty: 'ꀜIn 2008, state officials in Alabama, Arizona, and Washington delayed the start of the exit exam requirement and lowered standards after seeing that many students, including a disproportionate number of minorities, would fail the tests.'ꀝ

What better indictment of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) could there be? What kind of test do you have when the education establishment, in effect, cheats on its own exam?

This is not a problem with our kids; this is a problem with the test. And, ironically, while it looks bad to appear in the NYT in the company of such educational beacons as Arizona and Arkansas, backing away from the WASL as Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has done is a good thing. Would that he kills it entirely.

The WASL and its ilk in other states set themselves up as 'ꀜstandards'ꀝ tests, aiming to glean from a kid'ꀙs score the assurance that he or she has learned something in high school. We used to have a different system for that. You went to class, studied a lot, or a little, got a grade as evidence you were there, did that in about 20 different courses — and one spring evening walked across a stage in front of a lot of people and got a nice vinyl folder with a piece of paper in it.

Why try to distill that into a test taken over a few hours or a few days? High school is a complex experience. We should be pleased if kids are exposed to and learn a great variety of things. We should keep in mind that some kids will get good grades in physics and some will not; some will find they love literature and some will not. They will all get their 20 credits — soon to be CORE 24.

A number of states smartly don'ꀙt required WASL type standards tests for graduation. They focus on course content and give tests based directly on that. As NYT writer Ian Urbina reports in Tuesday'ꀙs story: Fifteen states, including Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, "use end-of-course tests on multiple subjects. This approach tends to face less opposition because the incremental tests can be more easily linked to course content and can be used more directly to increase rigor in coursework.'ꀝ

The WASL doesn'ꀙt do that. So why do we bother?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.