WASL Worries Stress Kids, Teachers: Months of Practice Put to Test This Week
This articles starts out as pretty much rah rah WASL, but just about when you give up on this article, it quotes Don Orlich. And finally come the darker revelations of what WASL means to school curriculum. Outdoor-education program, courses in African history and advanced placement Spanish and Latin classes are cut because they don't help students pass WASL. Physics may be next.
Even though passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning won't be a graduation requirement for three more years, students around the Seattle area say they're already feeling the pressure.
At Rainier Beach High School, where test scores rose last year but still remain alarmingly low, students yesterday said they realize just how high the stakes are now.
For months, they've endured seemingly endless rounds of practice tests and drills. Some students fear -- wrongly -- that their WASL scores are tied to their grades. Others worry classmates aren't taking the test seriously enough.
For some, the intense buildup has left them stressed and slightly suspicious about how much weight is being placed on their scores.
"They say it doesn't matter, but they talk about it so much it makes me nervous about taking it," sophomore Sierra Davis, 15, said.
But while many students expressed concern about their scores, few were worried enough to study outside of school. "I'm not studying -- I'm scared, though," sophomore Mercedes O'Dell said. "We have to get good on it to go to college."
Public schools statewide will be administering the WASL over the next two weeks. Students in grades four, seven and 10 are tested in reading, writing and math. A science section becomes mandatory this year for students in fifth, eighth and 10th grades.
Zoom Grant M. Haller / P-I
West Seattle High School language arts/humanities teacher Kim Zamoff reads a sample WASL question to sophomores, who start taking the test tomorrow.
Students, teachers and administrators are feeling the heat to produce results on a standardized test with major consequences. Washington's Class of 2008 must pass the WASL to graduate, and test scores will be included on transcripts starting with last year's 10th-graders.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students meet state standards in reading and math by 2014, including special-education students and English language learners. Schools that fall short of the mark face increasing sanctions, ranging from having to offer parents the choice of enrolling their children in a higher-performing school to having schools taken over by the state.
Washington's indicators so far are not encouraging. Fewer than half of 10th-graders met standards on last year's WASL. Some educators believe there is little incentive for 10th-graders to take the test seriously until it becomes a graduation requirement.
"How hard is it to focus when you're 15?" asked Sarah Morningstar, a teacher and activities coordinator at Franklin High School. "It's hard to impress on the children that, 'yes, you must focus.' "
Sitting with two friends at a restaurant near Ballard High School during lunch yesterday, Lindsey Brayman was secure in the knowledge that her class is the last to escape the graduation requirement.
"I don't think a lot of people are worried about it," she said, adding, "It's not like the WASL's hard to pass. I think I passed it every other year."
Travis Morgan knows what to expect. The 17-year-old is repeating his sophomore year and taking the WASL a second time. On the first try, he failed the science portion. Morgan is confident he'll pass this time around, but isn't overly concerned.
"If it doesn't work out, I can always go to community college," he said. "I'll probably do that anyway."
State test coordinators expect scores to rise dramatically come crunch time, as students begin to take the test more seriously.
Within a few years, they predict, more than 80 percent of students should pass the WASL. Students who don't -- even after repeated retakes -- won't earn their certificate of academic achievement or be able to graduate, but they still can attend community college and eventually earn an associate's degree, said Kim Schmanke, spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"It changes their path options, but the door isn't closed," she said.
It's not quite that simple, said Suzy Ames of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
Zoom Grant M. Haller / P-I
Ballard High School sophomore Travis Morgan, 17, is taking the WASL for the second time this year. He says he's confident he'll pass this time around.
Students can enroll in community colleges without a diploma, and take math and reading placement tests to determine what level courses they'll start in. Theoretically, those students could place into college-level courses, Ames said.
However, they must be over age 18 or have permission from their high school to attend -- a requirement designed to prevent high schoolers from making an end run around the WASL, she said.
And without a high school diploma, they won't be eligible for federal financial aid and will never be able to enter the military, Ames said.
The college system, she said, has been grappling with the issue since learning the WASL will become a graduation requirement -- wanting to help students who need a second chance, but wishing to avoid being perceived as "a dumping ground for students who couldn't complete the WASL."
How much of a role the WASL will play in college and university admissions is not yet known.
Tim Washburn, assistant vice president for enrollment services at the University of Washington, said state-run colleges and universities have agreed to give scholarships based on the reading, math and writing portions of the WASL, starting next year.
Washburn said an initial study of close to 12,000 college students statewide who were freshmen in 2001 showed that the WASL was a good indicator of future academic success. Additional analysis will be done to determine how much weight should be placed on the WASL, he said, but one thing is certain -- it will become a determinant in admissions, starting in 2008.
A year and a half ago, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson enlisted the help of student leaders to develop a program to help freshmen understand new state graduation requirements.
Launched this spring, the Student 2 Student: Change Your World initiative uses juniors and seniors as facilitators who guide freshmen through a two-hour session that includes group activities, discussions and a video produced by and starring Washington high school students.
Keven Wynkoop, activities coordinator at Ballard High School, said there's no more powerful medium for communicating with teenagers than teens themselves.
"They don't want to hear from teachers or adults one more time about what they have to do in four years to graduate," he said. "But to have students they look up to -- who are cool, who have had success in high school -- to have it come from them really makes a difference."
Franklin High freshman Rina Kheav won't take the WASL until next year, but she's already worried.
She pays attention when her teachers talk about the skills needed for the test. She takes home practice worksheets handed out in class. She's studying a list of math vocabulary -- denominator, congruent, equiangular -- to prepare for the math section of the WASL, which she'll take next spring as a sophomore.
Sometimes, it seems overwhelming.
"It puts a lot of pressure on us to figure out what we need to know to pass the WASL," she said. "A lot of kids are struggling just doing their homework, trying to get their work done. The WASL is just another heavy load on us."
To Don Orlich, a critic of standardized testing and a professor emeritus at Washington State University, the answer is simple: Get rid of the WASL.
Last month, Orlich released his study of two portions of the WASL that deemed the material on the test too advanced for the grade level. With students facing a test that's too difficult -- one that has more and more importance placed on it each year -- it's only a matter of time before they become disillusioned, distraught or drop out entirely, he said.
"No child should be exposed to that kind of pressure," he said.
Paul Duggan, the state assessment coordinator, refused to comment on the validity of the study findings, but pointed out that Orlich is not legally supposed to have any copies of the state's WASL tests. The study was not conducted by WSU, he said, and Orlich clearly has "an agenda."
Amy Hagopian, co-chairwoman of Garfield High School's parent-teacher-student association, said WASL pressure manifests itself in other ways.
At Garfield, she said, it's showing up in discussions about trimming next year's budget.
"As these budget cuts are being decided, a clear subtext is, 'Is this course or program important to helping kids pass the WASL?' " she said.
If the answer is no, the program is considered extraneous, she said. "That's the hazard of testing-driven curriculum."
Already, the school plans to cut an outdoor-education program, courses in African history and advanced placement Spanish and Latin classes.
Other upper-level classes, such as physics, are also being eyed for cuts because they're not essential for passing the WASL, she said.
"But passing the WASL and going to Yale -- those are two very different goals," Hagopian said.
P-I reporter Deborah Bach can be reached at 206-448-8197 or email@example.com
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