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The Cur$e of the WA$L

The money spent on tests is staggering--and that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

By: Don Orlich

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) has been analyzed for its negative impact on classroom instruction; achievement gaps between white, poor and minority children; and test validity issues. Virtually no discussion has ensued about the actual costs of the WASL to the taxpayers of the Evergreen State. This analysis includes the direct costs of the WASL and an estimate of "indirect" costs.

Published data from the state's (WASL) contracts show that the initial amount awarded to Riverside Publishing Company covering the period of Sept.r 24, 2001 to Oct. 10, 2005 was $61,673,910. A second contract for the WASL was awarded on April 15, 2004 to Oct. 31, 2008 to Pearson Educational Measurement for $70,800,000. That makes a total of only $132,473,910 just for the tests. Not one dime of that figure goes for instructional services.

There are no indirect charges in that figure. The initial contract to Riverside Publishing for trial runs was approximately $40 million. Thus, the true cost is probably about $172,473,910. Ring up $34.7 million from the 2006 Supplemental Budget for WASL remediation. Then add $277,010 for the June 2001 WASL training trip in Mesa, Arizona for 190 teachers. The total exceeds $207 million (not exactly petty cash).

Writing in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal of March 3, 2003, Benno Groeneveld reported that NCS Pearson, which is a subsidiary of London-based Pearson PLC, reported a revenue increase of 42 percent in 2002, compared to 2001 to $1.25 billion. The profits rose 46 percent to $148 million. Pearson thanks Washington's taxpayers.

On May 25, 2005, Jessica Blanchard, Seattle PI reporter, wrote that: "Each new [WASL] question costs roughly $20,000 to create, validate and pilot test." That figure illustrates an exorbitant boondoggle. When you get a multiple-choice WASL science question "What is the difference between an Oak tree and a Dolphin?" you have to ask-"$20K for that gem?" Yep, and that is just one of dozens that are equally silly.

Approximating Indirect Costs. It is difficult defining and estimating accurate "indirect costs" of our high-stakes test craze. A hint at computing such costs comes from a teacher who provided me with the following information for a 1,500-student, four-year suburban high school.

This teacher wrote: "Eight days we spend administering the WASL is time lost from teaching. In addition to testing time lost, our classroom environments are disrupted, we don't know exact length of class periods, teaching options are limited, and we cannot plan to have all students in class. Students not taking the WASL are still affected as we design two weeks of school around the WASL."

This accounts for about 5 percent of the school year or about $2,400 per teacher in salaries, using the state average of $47,316. The revenue per student in the state of Washington is about $7,743. Doing a bit of simple arithmetic, for the approximately 70 teachers we have about $168,000 in lost salary time. For the 1,500 students the cost comes at $388 per student and totals $582,000. Computing very conservative estimates just for one high school, the indirect costs for doing the WASL would equal about $750,000 per year.

For the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and our legislators to ignore these data and even refuse to validate or refute them is tantamount to fiscal irresponsibility. Statewide, about 70,000 high school students take the WASL. Applying the same formula (5 percent of school year lost) the state of Washington has a high school student indirect cost of about $27 million. Not exactly evidence of "tight fiscal policy."

With over 250,000 students at various grades being administered the WASL annually, the loss to instruction and the taxpayers could approach a staggering one-hundred million dollars in indirect costs - make that lost instructional time and learning! Multiply that latter figure by six years of "WASLing", and we are talking real tax money -wasted.

My data are very conservative. Studies show that preceding the WASL Madness Month, ala the NCAA's March Madness, schooling focuses on WASL preparation and passage of the WASL. Art, music, history, social studies, physical education and recess are neglected or shelved to pay homage to the "Curse."

But, the best is saved for last. In 2008, when passing the WASL becomes a requirement for earning a high school diploma, the state's fiscal wheels will come off. The number of class action lawsuits and settlements will be staggering. The British rock group Dire Straits summed it up brilliantly: "Money for Nothing."

Dr. Donald C. Orlich submitted this essay in response to last week's editorial. He is Professor Emeritus, Science Mathematics Engineering Education Center at Washington State University (Pullman, Washington 99164-4237). His telephone num¬ber is (509) 335-4844 and e-mail address is dorlich@wsu.edu. He is the senior co-author of "Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction", 8th Edition, (2007), Boston: Houghton Mifflin. In 2003, the University of Montana honored him with the "Educational Leadership Excellence Award." His newest book, "School Reform and The Great American Brain Robbery", is printed by PublishAmerica.Com, 2006.

— Don Orlich
Grand Coulee Star


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