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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 10:55 AM

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WASL writing: Make it up as they go along

Seattle Times staff reporter

Students must follow lots of rules when taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), as they did this week. They must pack away cellphones. They can't consult dictionaries for most of the test or calculators for some of it.

But when it comes to the writing section, there's one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps make their point.

The state's education office, to the dismay of some teachers, recently announced that making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL — something that on class assignments would mean a failing grade.

"Statistics in a WASL paper can be made up by you, the writer!" says a PowerPoint presentation that the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) created to be used this summer for students who fail the WASL this spring. And, a little later: "On the WASL, you can invent an important expert and have that person say something to bolster your opinion."

The idea is to help students show their writing skills during the WASL, a time when they can't call someone for a quote or look up a fact. And OSPI is confident students will understand that they can't make up facts any other time, said Joe Willhoft, interim assistant superintendent for assessment and research.

"The WASL situation is clearly a unique and distinct writing situation," Willhoft said. "This is not something that's difficult to teach students."

But some teachers who heard about or saw the PowerPoint presentation were shocked that the state superintendent's office would encourage students to make up facts in any setting. And they worry it will muddy the moral waters.

"It's just a slippery slope," said Kit McCormick, who teaches language arts at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie. "I don't even see why we need to go there — to say, just for this, go ahead and do something we've told you is wrong."

McCormick said nearly all the language arts teachers at Mount Si High were surprised, if not appalled, by the just-make-it-up suggestion.

The OSPI presentation explains a number of ways that students can elaborate when writing, and encourages them to use anecdotes, examples or descriptions in their work, as well as statistics and quotes.

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It is meant to be shown to middle-school students as well, and that's even more of a concern, says Page Perey, a teacher at nearby Chief Kanim Middle.

Seventh-graders are "very literal," said Perey, who teaches language arts. "I think they will become confused about when it's appropriate and when it's not appropriate to make things up."

Willhoft, however, said the goal of the WASL is just to give students a chance to show their writing skills, and they should be able to use all the tools they've learned.

Still, after hearing about teachers' concerns, Willhoft said OSPI plans to change the PowerPoint to remove the language about inventing facts and experts. But it will continue to verbally encourage teachers to tell students they can make up facts — but just for the WASL.

"We are sensitive to the fact that we want to make it very clear that we're only talking about the WASL," he said.

Beth Castle, assistant principal at Mount Si, says she can see both sides.

"We do want our kids to elaborate more," she said. "I understand OSPI's desire to help kids. We all want to help kids be better writers."

But students aren't adults, she said, and "there might be some who have a difficult time flipping back and forth — knowing when it's OK and when it's not OK and the consequences for their actions if they make something up when it's not allowed."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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