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Originally published December 16, 2009 at 10:51 AM | Page modified January 26, 2009 at 3:40 PM

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Corrected version

Schools chief plans WASL replacement by 2010

Just a week after he took office as the state's top schools official, Randy Dorn announced Wednesday that he would make good on his campaign promise to do away with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and replace it with two better, shorter, less-expensive exams.

Seattle Times education reporter

Dorn's idea for new assessment

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Just a week after he took office as the state's top schools official, Randy Dorn announced Wednesday that he would make good on his campaign promise to do away with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and replace it with two better, shorter, less-expensive exams.

By 2010, he said he will have two new tests in place — one for grades three through eight, and a second for high-school students.

Whether Dorn needs legislative approval to replace the WASL, however, is a question in the minds of at least some legislators.

"I think it's pretty arrogant of him to speak on what he can or can't do," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

It's also unclear how much the new tests would differ from the WASL. Some said they sound more like a refinement and pointed out that many of the changes Dorn is proposing were already under way.

In his news conference, however, Dorn stressed that the new exams are not the WASL by a different name. But they would cover the same subjects and incorporate many of the same test questions. And like the WASL, they would be homegrown tests, not off-the-shelf exams.

He also said that he doesn't want to remove the requirement that students must pass the reading and writing sections of the high-school test — or an approved alternative — to graduate.

Starting with the class of 2010, students would just have to pass the new, equally difficult exam. "I do not want to give an empty diploma," Dorn said.

What would change: Dorn wants shorter exams so that students spend less time taking them and teachers, students and parents would get the scores much faster.

The Legislature approved some of that work last year, but it seems Dorn wants to move further, faster.

To do that, he would limit the number of questions requiring long written responses to no more than 25 percent of the tests and shorten the passages students must read.

He wants all students to be able to take the test on a computer by 2012, which he says would reduce the costs of distributing and scoring the exam and the time required to score them. Now, it takes about six months to get WASL results. With computer-delivered tests, Dorn says, it could take two weeks or less.

He also wants the tests to be more "diagnostic" so that the results will show where students need to improve. He wants to offer the tests twice each school year to give students more than one chance to pass or show progress. And he has names for the new tests that he purposely created so they could not be acronyms. Instead of the WASL, Dorn wants to call the elementary- and middle-school tests the "Measurements of Student Progress" and the high-school exam the "High School Proficiency Exams."

He said he can do all this without increasing costs in the short term. In the long term, he says, the changes will save money.

And he wants to move fast. Students would still take the WASL this spring, but the new tests would be up and running — at least in paper-and-pencil form — by 2010.

Some said there are a number of reasons Dorn may not be able to move that quickly.

And although Dorn asserts he has the power to make these changes without legislative approval, others weren't so sure.

State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Dorn has authority to shorten the exam and change how it is given.

But she said he can't make significant changes for a number of reasons, including that a new test would require approval from the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act, a two-year process.

As a practical matter, the Legislature can always pass a new law that would supersede what Dorn wants to do.

But Dorn has worked to build consensus around what he's doing.

At the Wednesday news conference, representatives of four organizations, including the state's largest teachers union and the Washington Roundtable, a business group that's long been involved in state education policy, praised his plans as moving in the right direction.

Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement Wednesday saying she appreciates Dorn's desire to improve the WASL and looks forward to working with him in that area.

State Rep. Dave Quall, a Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said Dorn's proposals "make a lot of sense," although he said he does want to review them in his committee.

Dorn, however, said he doesn't want to wait for legislative approval.

"I want to do this now," he said.

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

Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

In this article, published Jan. 22 and corrected Jan. 26, State Rep. Dave Quall, a Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn's proposals about the WASL make a lot of sense. The story misstated whose proposals Quall was talking about.

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