Math WASL will be history by 2014
Gov. Christine Gregoire has agreed to toss out the math section of the 10th-grade WASL, after years of low pass rates and debate over whether...
Seattle Times education reporter
Gov. Christine Gregoire has agreed to toss out the math section of the 10th-grade WASL, after years of low pass rates and debate over whether it's the best way to gauge students' abilities.
Gregoire signed a bill Wednesday that will phase out that part of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning by 2014. Students instead will take two math tests at the end of classes often taken by freshmen and sophomores, such as Algebra I and Geometry I.
The move comes as education leaders are in the middle of rewriting math standards at each grade level and working on many levels to improve math instruction.
No one thinks that simply changing tests will magically raise 10th-grade math scores. Math will remain part of the WASL exam given in grades 3-8. But many hope that the switch to end-of-course exams will help in high school.
One advantage: Students will be tested right after they finish a class, rather than all at once on one exam.
"Math seems a pretty steep hill to climb when you need to climb it all at once," said Larry Nyland, superintendent of the Marysville School District.
Students' weaknesses also can be uncovered earlier, with more time to correct them before graduation, said state Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, the bill's main sponsor.
The end-of-course exams, he said, "will clearly identify that you've learned algebra and you've learned geometry."
Washington students have been taking the WASL for about a decade. The exams started in grades 4, 7, and 10. Grades 3, 5, 6 and 8 were recently added as well. There are reading and math sections at each grade level. In some grades, the exam includes writing and science, too.
This spring is the first time students must have passed the reading and writing sections of the 10th-grade exam — or an approved alternative — to graduate. About 80 percent have done so.
Math was required, too, until last year. That's when lawmakers decided to delay the requirement until 2013, in part because only about half the students in the class of 2008 had passed the math section. In 2013, students will have a choice: Pass the math WASL, or two end-of-course exams. In some districts, those exams will be given at the end of Algebra I and Geometry I. In districts that mix those two subjects into "integrated" math classes, there will be end-of-course exams in Integrated Math I and II.
In 2014, the math WASL is scheduled to end all together.
A bill that would have dumped the WASL in favor of end-of-course exams also passed last year, but Gregoire vetoed it, in part because she thought there were too many unanswered questions, said Judy Hartmann, her executive policy adviser for K-12 education.
Since then, however, the state Board of Education commissioned a study that looked at end-of-course exams in other states and concluded that both the math WASL and end-of-course exams can do a good job of assessing students' math skill.
Others who voiced strong concern last year also are willing to at least give the new exams a try.
Those include Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. She still has reservations about making the change before she has a chance to see how the new tests work.
"We may have better performance, but it's a whole new ballgame," she said.
At the same time, she says the state's new learning standards for high-school math are being organized by class, so it makes sense to test students the same way.
"It's a common-sense approach, and it could be a better way than what we're doing ... so let's give it a shot," she said.
The fact that there was no longer a push to fill end-of-course exams with all multiple-choice questions also helped.
The new exams will be homegrown and based on Washington's learning standards. Although organized by math subject, they are expected to include a mix of multiple-choice and the kind of open-ended questions that the WASL is known for.
That was one issue that was important to Bergeson. The state's school superintendents also want the state to settle on one test or another and complete its math standards, said Barbara Mertens of the Washington Association of School Administrators.
"The greatest heartburn is that things keep changing," she said.
Along with the end-of-course tests, the Legislature also approved shortening parts of the WASL tests given in grades 3-8 and translating the math and science sections of the WASL into six languages.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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