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It is insane that our society now judges schools based on one standardized test

Ohanian Comment Kudos to columnis who takes a look at a "low-performing" school and then describes what he sees.

From the inside, Seattle's Orca elementary feels like an educational dream.

The school has energized parents, a passionate staff and a racially and economically mixed student body. It's popular, with waiting lists to get into kindergarten and first, second and third grades.

And the classrooms are creative and alive. Consider teacher Donte Felder's fourth- and fifth-graders. Recently they deconstructed a Paul Simon song. Debated the Second Amendment. Analyzed data from a paper-wad-throwing experiment. Bantered parts of speech in a fast-paced word game. And began creating an original play based on Brown v. Board of Education.

That was just one day.

From the outside, though, something looks wrong at the South End alternative school.

According to the state's bellwether standardized test, Orca is one of the worst schools in the Puget Sound region. Last year, only two of 37 Orca fourth-graders passed all three sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). The school was last among Seattle's 70 elementary schools in writing and near the bottom in reading and math.

Barring major improvement, Orca will be declared a failed school, which eventually could lead to a forced restructuring or new curriculum.

So which is it? Is Orca great, as more than 300 parents seem to think? Or is Orca horrible?

I can say one thing after my cursory evaluation of the school: It is insane that our society now judges schools based on one standardized test.

I spent only one day at Orca, and yet I now have considerably more information about it than does either the state or federal government.

Kids learn to play musical instruments. They do drama and dance. They take "living science," monitoring the moon's phases, doing weather experiments and using solar panels to generate electricity.

It is troubling that Orca kids do so poorly on the tests. As Principal Ben Ostrom says, it raises the question of whether all students get enough "rigorous academic challenges."

But standardized tests don't work equally everywhere. One example: When Orca kids take in-class tests, sometimes they can choose to take them verbally instead of in writing. You can't do that with the WASL.

"People come here because they have strong ideas about education, which may not square with what the state and federal governments say is important," Ostrom said.

There is open hostility toward the test at Orca. Last year, five fourth-graders boycotted it. As 19-year Orca teacher Liz Neuman said:

"I could give a rip about the WASL. We can teach to this test, but then how much of what makes this school great will be left when we're done?"

It's a good question. Getting everyone to meet basic standards is a laudable goal. I hope a place like Orca can find a way to pass the tests without sacrificing its unique curriculum.

But if it can't? There's a head-on collision coming between a top-down federal mandate and many bottom-up schools. Places like Orca show me it's the feds and the state that ought to swerve first.

— Danny Westneat
Test-Taking Not Always Best Test
Seattle Times


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