Teachers: WASL hurting education
Ohanian Comment: I hope that every teacher who feels this way has joined Mothers Against WASL/ Parent Empowerment Netwoek andhas signed The Educator Roundtable Petition, and is working to get other teachers and concerned citizens actively involved in resistance.
If not, complaints are just whines.
By Sarah Koenig
Elementary school teacher Mary Phlypo has taught for 30 years, and her classroom has changed in that time. She used to read more books aloud to her students. They did more art projects, developed motor skills with clay and scissors and wrote songs.
These days, Phlypo spends less time talking with students one-on-one. She's abandoned class meetings where students built social skills.
She still does some of these activities, but far less than she used to.
The reason for the change: standardized testing.
"There's not time in the day," said Phlypo, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Silver Firs Elementary in south Everett. "I've been involved with the WASL since its inception, but it's impossible to have children learn at the pace that's expected."
She's not alone.
"I've taught social studies for 22 years, and I think the WASL has changed my teaching by making it less effective," said David Guthrie, a social studies teacher at Shorewood High School in Shoreline.
Preparing students for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, has become a central focus at schools in Washington state. The No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, penalizes schools with low test scores, and the state requires students to pass sections of the test to graduate.
Educator, parent and district concerns about these requirements have reached Congressional lawmakers, who last month introduced legislation that could undercut NCLB. (See sidebar.)
Specifically, many educators feel that the demands have made creative, student-specific, in-depth and variegated teaching harder to offer.
The WASL drains much-needed funds from the classroom, saps weeks of instruction and administrative time, and has pushed districts into buying standardized curricula that limit teachers, critics say. Social studies, art, music and non-WASL programs and classes also have suffered, they argue.
And those aren't the only problems some see with the test.
As students faced down the WASL this month, the Enterprise spoke to local educators about how it's changed classrooms.
A narrowed curriculum
At elementary schools, subjects like social studies and art, which are not tested on the WASL, have suffered in the push to teach reading, writing and math for the test.
"The students who are getting to us are much less prepared in the area of social studies," said Guthrie. "Curriculum in this district and across the country is being narrowed."
Narrowing has occurred in high school courses too.
Jared Kink, who teaches US History and American Literature at Jackson High School in Mill Creek, said it's hard to generalize, as some teachers focus more on the test than others. But overall, the focus in English classes has shifted.
"It's a dramatic change," Kink said. "How ninth and 10th grade is taught isn't how I was taught in high school."
Classes at that level focus on analytical writing to prepare for the WASL. Philosophical discussions still happen in those grades, but not as much as they used to, Kink said. Creative writing is offered as an elective class, but is rare in English classes, where students still read literature, but are tested on the books with WASL-style tests.
Test preparation can push aside even standard writing skills. Kink was surprised to find that some students entering his 11th-grade class had never written an argumentative paper before. The school used to teach that in 10th grade. Now there's not enough time, Kink said.
"I do think the WASL is one type of thinking, and other types get ignored," he said.
Creativity has taken a hit at elementaries too, teachers say.
Judy McCoid, a third-grade teacher at Seaview Elementary in Edmonds, used to have her third-graders write a lot more fiction and poetry.
"They love to write fiction, but we don't have time for those things," she said. "Now it's very formulaic and scripted."
In many classrooms, creativity is not gone, but things are more focused, said Dan Wilson, president of the Edmonds Education Association. McCoid, for example, hasn't eliminated creative work from the classroom.
Many Seaview students score well on the WASL, which gives McCoid more freedom to do things her way, she said. But many of her colleagues, especially those at schools struggling with low test scores, feel much more constrained, she said.
A de-personalized approach
WASL demands also make it hard to treat student as individual learners, teachers say.
Classes each have their own culture and needs, as do students, said Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association. Teachers can see that one student, for example, would benefit from a different approach, she said.
"You can't always do that if you have a prescribed curriculum handed out by your district," she said. "All districts are paying a lot of money for set curriculums that will get kids to artificial WASL goals."
In the Edmonds, Everett and Shoreline school districts, there is no lock-step, day-to-day mandated program for teachers, as there is in other districts. Still, there is more centralized curriculum than there used to be.
Overall, the focus on the test has curbed teacher creativity, educators say.
"The test forces us to focus on these things and that's where the creativity piece goes to hell in a hand basket," said Pat Valle, co-president of the Shoreline Education Association.
For example, in the past, teachers could more easily teach subjects in depth, or linger on a topic they felt was interesting or important. It's harder to do that now.
"If you're working on a lesson and could go into more depth, there's always this feeling of, 'We have to keep moving,'" Phlypo said. "We've lost a lot of flexibility."
Mead described the joy of teaching as the "ah-ha" moment on a student's face.
"You're not able to have that joy as much," she said. "Every little minute is structure, and the fights now are: 'We need more time to be able to get the kids to this level.'"
The simple pleasures of talking to other teachers in the break room or eating lunch together also have suffered with the time crunch: There's less time for camaraderie, Wilson said. Some schools have cut recess and breaks for students as well.
Use of funds
While districts are handed time-consuming mandates related to the WASL, there's not enough funding to carry them out, critics say.
"That's a lot of money that could be going towards increasing staff, which would then decrease class size," said Valle. "That could be going toward professional development."
WASL demands have also drained money from art, music and other non-WASL offerings, Wilson said.
The Shoreline School District is in the midst of a budget crisis that led to school closures, and the Edmonds district is looking at cutting teachers to fill a budget gap.
Eating up time
The WASL also takes time from class instruction and teacher collaboration.
Guthrie said he loses two-and-a-half weeks of instruction time a year to the test, as do other teachers.
In addition, time for teachers to meet, plan and brainstorm, a great tool for improving learning, is scant in Shoreline, Guthrie said. Instead, the focus of staff meetings and planning days has been sucked up by state and federal requirements, he said.
"We spent the other day in a staff meeting that lasted an hour doing nothing but filling out forms to meet the federal mandate that we be qualified teachers," Guthrie said.
The NCLB law requires districts to document that all their teachers are "highly qualified" according to a system that generates much paperwork.
Other staff time is lost, too. Administrators and counselors spend weeks on the details of administering the tests.
"I would much rather have the counselor working with the kids," Valle said.
The WASL and standards
Supporters of the WASL and NCLB say that the test and its penalties hold schools accountable, help equalize education and ensure that students of all incomes get a standard level of education. They argue that to succeed in today's world, students need specific skills, including critical thinking skills.
Many teachers and educators support standards, Wilson said, himself included. Years ago, he taught biology.
"The guy next to me taught totally differently, so I don't think (standards are) a bad thing," he said.
What many teachers don't support is the way standards are tested.
"The WASL is supposed to test those but doesn't," Wilson said.
Students were making progress before the tests, Wilson said.
"There is more loss than there is gain," he said. "The test has turned the system upside down and doesn't give anything back."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES