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Thursday, March 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:46 PM

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Information in this article, originally published March 12, 2006, was corrected March 16, 2006. IIn a previous version of this story, one student was incorrectly identified in the cutline of a photograph as Wing Luke Elementary second grader, Lechae Moorebell. The correct spelling of her name is, Lechae Moore-Bell.

Exit exam changing state's classrooms

Seattle Times staff reporter

They don't have to pass the state's high-stakes test until high school, but these elementary-school kids are already getting ready for it — and so is their teacher.

For Jennifer Watling's first- and second-graders, that means stickers by the sheet and a roll of the dice.

"It isn't like, 'Open up the book to page 10, we are going to do that now,' " said Watling, who teaches at Seattle's Wing Luke Elementary. The dice are for games and other hands-on learning to help her kids understand what they learn in her math class, not just recite it, Watling said. As for the stickers, well, what fun is a game without prizes?

Amid the play is a serious agenda: shifting the way public education is provided in Washington.

Tenth-graders across the state will take the reading and writing sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) this week, and math and science sections in April. While they've been taking versions of the test since elementary school, this time it's for keeps: Students must show they have the skills assessed in the test — even if it takes several tries — in order to graduate. Some students, who repeatedly fail, may be given an approved alternative.

The WASL — some $100 million in the making, from the designing to the scoring — is copyrighted and unique to Washington. It is unlike any off-the-shelf, multiple-choice test most parents took. It's designed to evaluate not only knowledge but skills: critical thinking, reasoning and writing.

That's because the WASL requires students to show not just what they know, but how they use it. And that makes all the difference. For teachers, for curriculum and for students.

Teachers need to know their material more deeply than ever before. Curriculum needs to be aligned with the standards the students will be tested on.

As for students, they need a deep-enough understanding of their subjects to be able to explain their reasoning — even on the math test.

The WASL is raising a range of issues for critics, including whether it is a useful tool in the classroom given that the results in most grades aren't back until the next school year. The scored exam is never returned.

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But even many critics of the WASL's use as a graduation requirement see it as a valuable measure of how kids and schools are doing.

Nearly 70 percent of teachers responding to an internal poll by the Washington teachers union said in October 2005 that the test should continue to be used as one measure of student performance, though not as a graduation requirement. That was up from just 53 percent of teachers polled in 2000.

Some teachers also see virtue in a test that is bringing new accountability and fresh approaches to instruction. "I'm using a lot more games, lots of counters, pieces, things kids can manipulate," said Watling, who's been teaching for 36 years.

"It's actually a lot of fun."

Homegrown product

The test is unique in several ways.

First, it's not a national, off-the-shelf test, like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills — retired in Washington state last summer — in which students fill in ovals on a multiple-choice test.

On those tests, students are required to choose the correct answer from several options. But on the WASL, students are required to not only be correct but to know why and be able to explain it.

On a reading-comprehension question, for instance, they would have to deduce the meaning of a passage of text and explain which passages of the text provide the evidence for their conclusion.

The WASL is also a largely homegrown product. A private consultant wrote the first version of the test, based on specifications devised by committees of educators across the state.

Washington educators have been revising the test ever since, writing new questions that continually improve the test's fit to the state's academic standards. Those were set after years of work by Washington educators, business leaders, parents and community members.

Keeper questions are those that effectively assess what knowledge students have and the strategies they use to solve mathematical problems, comprehend what they read or write competently.

"You have a better sense of what kids can actually do with the knowledge they have, rather than whether they recognize whether something is correct," said Catherine Taylor, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington who helped design the test.

How schools and teachers prepare their kids to meet the standards, through their curriculum and instructional materials, is a matter of local control, decided district by district.

But the high-stakes test has put a new accountability in public education, teachers and education professionals say. Instead of just covering a lot of stuff year after year they hope prepares kids for life — spray and pray, Taylor calls it — teacher instruction is increasingly aimed at deep conceptual understanding and meeting state standards.

Classroom changes

The pressure to make sure kids perform to set educational standards in order to graduate is changing what goes on in the classroom.

"Before, you could have two classrooms in two buildings with two teachers and the kids would come out with completely different knowledge. There was nothing that tied us together," Watling said. "We had goals, frameworks, but no one ever followed through; it was whatever interested the teacher, as long as they stuck with the text."

Not anymore. Now she is checking with teachers in higher grades to make sure she is aiming her kids to the standards they will have to meet.

Stacy Harbour-Van Hoy, a teacher at Dimmitt Middle School in the Renton School District, says the pressure of the test narrows her instruction, at least until after the tests are over.

"If it's not aligned with the standards and getting them ready to take that test, it gets tossed," Harbour-Van Hoy said. "I pull out the stuff I really want to do after the test." Projects, for instance, go on hold until after test time.

For some of her students the test is a struggle, Harbour-Van Hoy said. "They might be able to get the right answer on a math problem, but still not get a good score on the WASL, because their writing skills aren't enough to explain how they solved it."

Ripple effect

Some critics of the WASL say the test makes it harder to help struggling students, in part because they don't get their scored test back.

"A standards-based test to determine mastery of curriculum sounds nifty," said James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Except we have too damn many standards, they are not well-defined and you don't give feedback," Popham said. "Ultimately, teachers give up on this crap, they are tired of guessing, and then what influences how these kids do is the same thing as on other national standardized tests: socioeconomic status."

In Washington, low family income has been a reliable predictor of failure.

Students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program consistently pass the WASL at lower rates than those who don't, and that is so across all ethnic groups in all subjects of the test.

Parents can request to see their child's workbooks, without scores, in a secure room, for a limited time, under supervision. They must also sign a confidentiality agreement vowing not to disclose what they have seen outside their family.

The point is to avoid having to rewrite the whole test every year, instead of only part of it — a costly proposition that Massachusetts, often held up as a model, has chosen to pay for. The Washington Legislature, so far, has not. (Massachusetts releases all the questions from its MCAS test each year, and schools receive CDs with students' answers.)

The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction since 2001 has put extensive information about the WASL on its Web site, including sample questions and student responses on reading, writing and math that teachers can use in their classroom, as well as information about scoring.

Yet "there is a lot of mystery about this test," said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington teachers union. "And the ability to modify instruction to help students do better is limited. Sitting down with the student with the test and seeing how they answer it and talking about it, that is really important."

In most grades, results don't come until the next school year, when the child has usually moved on to a different teacher.

While students have been at the core of the concerns about the WASL, some see ripple effects on teachers and curriculum, too.

Because the WASL drills into higher-level thinking, some teachers may realize they don't understand their subjects well enough to get their kids to the conceptual understanding they need, said Allen Glenn, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington College of Education.

"You are not teaching the rule, but what's behind it," Glenn said. "It demands much more knowledge."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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