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Originally published Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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WASL had some good points, researchers say

A new study has concluded that the much-disparaged Washington Assessment of Student Learning had some good points that should not be lost in the streamlined test that replaces it.

Seattle Times education reporter

The much-disparaged Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) had some good points that should not be lost in the streamlined test that replaces it.

That's the conclusion of a study released Wednesday by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which is studying the effects of high-stakes tests on classroom instruction in three states, including Washington.

Researchers spent two to three days at six Washington high schools, where they observed classes and interviewed parents, students, teachers and principals. Although their sample was small, they said they chose schools they think are representative of the state's high schools as a whole.

Teachers echoed many of the same old criticisms of the WASL — it's too long, the results are confusing and don't come back in time — but they also credited the WASL with improving students' writing and reasoning skills.

They pointed favorably to its "extended response" questions, which are to be eliminated from new exams favored by Randy Dorn, the new state superintendent of public instruction who campaigned to replace the WASL.

The new tests, to be introduced next spring, will continue to have some short-answer questions but will be largely multiple-choice.

That will be true for the state exams given to 10th-graders and those for students in third though eighth grades. The only exception will be the writing section, where students will still be judged on the quality of short essays.

The Center on Education Policy questioned whether the changes would have a detrimental effect on students' education. "Is this going to mean kids aren't going to be educated as well?" asked Jack Jennings, the center's president and chief executive.

Not according to Deputy Superintendent Alan Burke, who said the state superintendent's office decided against an entirely multiple-choice test to retain the type of benefits the study found.

But Burke acknowledged that the removal of the extended-response questions is a trade-off for shorter tests.

Of the three states the center has studied, Washington was the only one where teachers mentioned that a high-stakes test such as the WASL has improved student learning, said Deepa Srikantaiah, the study's main author. And the study says about 80 percent of teachers said they'd rather see the WASL improved than replaced.

The state's largest teachers union disputes that finding. In the Washington Education Association's survey, 75 percent of teachers said they wanted the WASL replaced, said spokesman Rich Wood.

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The state test will undergo many changes, some of which were under way before Dorn took office. Dorn is working to offer the test online; math sections will be updated; and the superintendent's office is working on classroom tests that would allow teachers to diagnose what help students need.

The center had two main recommendations for Washington state:

• End the confusion over changes in the test. Many parents and students think that the end of the WASL means students won't have to pass an exam to graduate from high school, but that's not the case. Students still must pass the reading and writing sections of the new test to graduate.

• Retain the benefits of the WASL in the new exams.

"We hope whatever is done, that is not lost," Jennings said.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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