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Stakes higher for this year's WASL testing

It's the last class that won't have to pass rigorous state exams to graduate, but high school sophomores still are feeling pressure to score well.

Starting this fall, high school transcripts will include student scores from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, tests.

For Rosanne Dean, 16, a Granite Falls High School sophomore, that reality adds anxiety.

"I get more stressed out if I'm going to pass, and I'll wonder what colleges will think of me if I don't pass," she said.

However, classmate Josh Chamberlin, 15, doesn't mind.

"I guess it's another way to show what you know," he said.

Three weeks of WASL testing begin Monday. The testing has become increasingly high-stakes since the first exams were taken by fourth-graders in 1997.

The exams are taken annually by fourth-, seventh- and 10th-grade students, but many districts are giving similar exams in reading and math to third- through eighth-grade students on a trial run before they are required by federal law next year.

Just how much weight WASL results will have on high school transcripts is difficult to say.

For example, admissions officials at the University of Washington and Washington State University say the scores will not be a factor in their decisions, at least for now.

"The earliest we would consider WASL in admissions would be 2008," said Tim Washburn, the UW's assistant vice president for enrollment services. "We haven't decided how it will be considered in 2008, only that it will be a consideration."

"Right now, we are not using it at all," said Charleen Taylor, a WSU spokeswoman. "We will collect the data and see how it can inform the admissions process. We need to better understand what it tells us before we start using it in the admissions process."

Regardless, many students don't want to roll the dice.

That's why hundreds of juniors in Washington state have signed up for free retakes of WASL tests to boost scores on their transcripts. The state has sent more than 2,000 retake booklets to Snohomish County high schools.

The most popular retake in the county is in writing, with about 8 percent of juniors giving it a second try. Math was the second most requested retake, followed by reading and science.

It's the first time the option has been available statewide, but retakes will become commonplace beginning next year, when passing the high school reading, math and writing WASLs becomes a graduation requirement.

"I'm doing this so I can get into a good college," said Kyle Clark, 16, a Lakewood High junior who is retaking the math and science portions.

His decision came after talking it over with his parents.

"They suggested I do it," he said. "I was kind of bummed."

The more he thought about it, however, the more he realized it made sense. Only a student's top score appears on the transcript, and Clark said he usually does better the second time he takes an exam.

Janelle Harstead, another Lakewood junior, also will retake the math and science exams.

"A lot of people are like, 'Why are you doing it?'" Harstead said. "I just want to improve my score."

Between transcripts and scholarships tied to good WASL performance, this year's testing has new meaning for teenagers, said James Dean, principal at Cascade High School in Everett.

"That in itself really motivated kids to ... work a little bit harder," Dean said. "More than for the quality of the school and how it's measured publicly, it's individually important now."

And that's why Alisha Burley, 16, is opting out of WASL testing at Granite Falls High.

"The fact that they are turning it against us is just wrong," the sophomore said.

Burley said the WASL testing is a stress on teachers and students. Schools fear federal sanctions if they don't show enough improvement, and that trickles down to students.

Her mother, Pam Burley, plans to be in Olympia Monday for a "Walk Against WASL" protest.

"I don't believe that any one test should have that kind of impact on a child's future," Pam Burley said. "It's a lot of coercion, bribery and threats."

Granite Falls sophomore Taylor Brown, 15, figures the WASL is just one of many of life's challenges he can expect.

"I think of taking it as a preparation test for the SATs, and I have to take big tests like that, and it's just the start of it," he said.

Middle and elementary schools also are adjusting to new WASL wrinkles. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires reading and math exams for grades three through eight beginning next year, with results shared with parents. To test or not to test is a tricky question for districts, which must balance lost instruction time with the chance to give students more practice with state exams.

Most districts have chosen to pilot the new exams this year, even though schools, parents and students will never see the results.

In Edmonds, Lakewood and Mukilteo, for instance, all elementary schools will participate.

Allen Sharples, Lakewood School District's assessment director, sees several advantages.

"It gives students practice," he said. "It reinforces that they are going to be taking it the next year. It gives more ownership of the WASL throughout the whole school, so it doesn't just seem like it's something just for fourth-grade teachers or seventh-grade teachers to worry about. It isn't. It's all of us."

The practice run is more to test the test itself - finding out which questions prove too confusing or which ones don't measure the right skills, said Brian Fitch, principal at Jackson Elementary School in Everett.

Even though the school won't know how its students scored, it still will give teachers and administrators a good idea of the vocabulary children need to be aware of, Fitch said.

"For example, one of the words often used on the reading test is 'selection,' like 'read the selection below.' Well, that's not the way an elementary teacher is going to speak in class," he said.

Marysville and Arlington left it up to schools to decide. Some are participating, and others aren't. That way, the district can learn some of the challenges schools can expect next year while not disrupting classrooms elsewhere.

A few districts, such as Granite Falls and Lake Stevens, chose not to participate in the practice exams at all.

— Eric Stevick and Melissa Slage
The Daily Herald


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