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A Testing Time in School

Fourth-graders Adam Gelatt, Molly Stroosma and Francesca Ragusa take the essay portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning last week at Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon. In honor of the highly anticipated state exam, Adam and Molly hung signs from their desks that read, "WASL, WASL, HERE I COME!"

On the third day of test-taking, 10-year-old Molly Stroosma said her classmates were beginning to get snippy.

"I think the other kids are stressed out because they're not getting along, and that just started this morning," Molly said. "So, I thought that might have to do with the test."

Molly is a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary in Mount Vernon and is taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL.

Starting next year, 10th-graders will have to pass portions of the WASL in order to graduate from high school.

Washington students also take the exams in the fourth and seventh grades. Results from the exam also are used to determine whether schools and school districts meet federal standards set by the 2002 education law, No Child Left Behind.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the WASL has inspired varied reactions in teachers and students. At first, many teachers thought of the test as a mild irritant that took up about two weeks of class time.
But then came No Child Left Behind, which Congress passed as a response to the achievement gap between students of different races, and the WASL escalated from nuisance test to high-stakes exam.

Opinions were divided between those in favor of setting a state standard for students, and those who felt the exam would force teachers to "teach to the test."

The stress trickled down through the labyrinth of education offices at federal and state levels to the teachers and students. The exam assesses the students, but most teachers would admit to feeling that the exam also tests them.

Anthony Shanander, who sits two rows behind Molly at Lincoln Elementary, wrote WASL jingles to ease his stress about the exam.

The 10-year-old has chestnut brown hair and a spread of freckles across his face. Anthony said he was nervous at the start of the exam, but grew more comfortable as the testing days wore on.
"It was sort of scarier at first because of the name," he said. Then he smiled. "You know, because WASL rhymes with fossil."

Anthony's teacher, Lisa Monson, told her students not to think of the testing time as, "Here comes the WASL."

In the weeks before the exam, Monson had them practice test-taking strategies to help alleviate their stress.

With his mother, who works at Lincoln Elementary, Anthony made up a song about the WASL. It goes to the tune of the "Beauty and the Beast" song, "Be our guest."

Do your best, do your best

Let the teacher do the rest

Put a pencil in your hand, cherie

And begin to take the test.

There will be no more complaining,

for the WASL we are taking.

Do. Your. Best!

Testing the teachers

Most teachers, while supportive of setting a standard in education, are still wary of the exam. Monson said the high-stakes exam "has driven school improvement, which is good."

And with that improvement has come more work, she said — teachers work harder now than they did before the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002.

"There was a little bit more time to chat in the hallways, but now we're living in our classrooms, preparing, planning, and assessing," she said.

Monson said she worried that teachers put too much pressure on students to pass the exam. Improving test scores reflect well on the teacher and on the school.

"There's pressure from No Child Left Behind to get these kids to pass the test," Monson said. "That's the part I question."

To add to the pressure, the newspaper prints the average test scores for every school, and community members are always quick to comment on how well one school did versus another.

Monson resents the negative publicity — it's unfair to those teachers who work so hard, she said.

Like Monson, Evelyn Morse, the principal of Madison Elementary in Mount Vernon, doesn't like seeing the test scores in print. She said readers don't often understand what the test scores mean, and jump to conclusions that the teachers aren't working hard enough.

"We have a horrible reputation," Morse said.

Morse argues that comparing schools is a moot point, as students across Skagit County schools are not equal. Some live in multi-million dollar homes with the promise of a college education. Others don't speak English and spend extracurricular hours picking berries with their parents, while their classmates go to soccer practice and receive private piano lessons.

Last week, several students who speak no English arrived at Madison.

Those students will take the WASL exam, and they will likely score below the state standard, as the WASL is administered in English only.

Their low scores will factor into the school's overall score, one of the numbers by which Madison is judged as succeeding or failing under No Child Left Behind.

The national schools office counts only those students who have been at a school since October when it determines whether a school met the federal standard. But the state schools office discloses the average of all the scores, no matter whether the students speak English or just arrived at a school the week before.

In the case of the new Madison arrivals, their scores don't mean anything at the federal level. However, the state accounts for every exam taken, and the paper then prints that average.

Morse calls the test "a bummer," but said it has raised the bar for teaching.

"It's made us do things and look at things we probably wouldn't have looked at," she said. "It's changed our expectations."

At La Conner Middle School, Principal K.C. Knudson calls himself a "huge fan of the WASL."

He said he thinks education has improved in the last 10 years because of the test. He also supports the federal government's threat to penalize schools that don't meet the standard.

"When I stepped in as a teacher, the sense of direction in my class was almost nonexistent. I went, ‘OK, what am I supposed to be doing?'" he said. "We progressed from, ‘Here's your material, do what you need to do,' to having clear objectives."

Kristi Drake, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at LaVenture Middle School in Mount Vernon, said she, too, likes knowing that all her students should be able to perform at a certain level. She said she disagrees with the criticism of the WASL that teachers are starting to "teach to the test."

"If you're truly teaching the kids reading and writing, then it shouldn't be an issue of teaching to the test," Drake said. "My kids were shocked to find out that they'd been doing WASL skills all year long."

Drake said she is in minority as a teacher who supports the WASL. Still, she doesn't think the test is ideal for all students. Like many teachers, Drake cited the special education students and English-language learners who go into the exam knowing they won't make the grade.

Knudson said that several years ago, most teachers, as a rule, hated the WASL. Part of the reason was the test behind the test, he said — teachers' fear of being judged based on their students' scores.

"Teachers were afraid that, you know, ‘They're going to know my class stinks,'" he said.

Back in Lisa Monson's class, students were finishing essays for the WASL.

Molly Stroosma, who thinks she'll do well on the WASL, had mixed feelings.

"It's kind of scary but it's kind of fun, too," she said. "But it would be hard if you didn't know English, because it would be hard to read the directions and figure out what you needed to write down."

Isolde Raftery can be reached at 360-416-2148 or by e-mail at iraftery@skagitvalleyherald.com.

— Isolde Raftery
Skagit Valley Herald


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