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A steadfast objector to the WASL: Test enriches private company, says teacher who refused to administer it

Susan Notes:

Reading about Carl Chew is a breath of fresh air. . . and a reminder of what teaching should be about: steadfast allegiance to children.

By Cydney Gillis

As teachers go, Carl Chew has been a troublemaker from the start.

It wasnât long after the Seattle artist-turned-teacher got hired in 2000 as a long-term substitute for a kindergarten class that he ran afoul of a principal who didnât believe in afternoon recess â an idea Chew found ridiculous. So he took the kids out in the afternoon anyway and promptly got fired.

In April, Chew caused a much bigger stir when he refused to give his sixth-graders at Seattleâs Eckstein Middle School the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, the state measure of student achievement, two parts of which â reading and writing â students had to pass this year for the first time in order to graduate.

Itâs not that the 60-year-old science teacher is against tests. Heâs just not crazy about a two-week battery of them that he says cost the state a fortune and does more to privatize schools than actually improve education â points he says were hardly mentioned in the media buzz that came with his act of civil disobedience, which began with an email informing his principal that he wasnât going to give the test and resulted in a two week suspension without pay.

Between printing an estimated 60 million pages of WASL forms and booklets and paying a private company to administer the testâs four parts â including math and science â Chew estimates the state spends $56 million a year on the WASL.

The stateâs Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction puts the price of a contract with Pearson, the company that administers the test, at $30 million â $8 million of which is paid by the federal government. Still, Chew says, the money thatâs going to the WASL could buy a lot of teachers, smaller class sizes and attentive instruction. Instead, itâs used to punish kids and schools alike through tests that achieve little.

On nearly every front, he says, the WASL â which measures a schoolâs performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act â is a setup for failure, from how itâs written to how itâs used. Chew and Wendy Kimball, president of the Seattle Education Association, an affiliate of the state teacherâs union, say the test is culturally biased and the results come back so late â in the next year â that the teachers canât use them: The students who scored low have moved on to the next grade.

âMy all-time biggest complaint is that, if you are a white middle- or upper-middle-class kid, the language that the test is written in is your language,â Chew says. âAnd if you are a Hispanic kid or Filipino or Vietnamese or African-American, you do not, in your home, speak the language the test is written in, so you are at a distinct disadvantage.â

State public instruction spokesperson Nathan Olson disputes this, noting that it is Washington state teachers who develop and write the WASL test questions, and âexperts make sure there are no unfair or biasing questions,â he says.

Olson says there is little or no disparity between white students and other ethnicities in this yearâs test scores. Statistics released by Superintendent Terry Bergeson June 3, however, indicate that 92.8 percent of whites passed the reading and writing portions of the WASL compared with 85.9 percent for African-Americans, 84.6 percent for Native Americans and 84.3 percent for Hispanics. (Asians fared better than whites at 92.9 percent.)

Students who are homeless, disabled, or sick are also at a disadvantage if they canât get the good sleep and good breakfast WASL literature recommends. And failure, Chew says, is an awful stigma for children to carry around, when, in fact, many score well within a passable margin of error.

âItâs very frustrating for parents because all of sudden now thereâs their kid thatâs a failure and what do parents do about that?â he asks. âIt makes many parents either really scared or really mad that kids failed [when] in fact this child may just have had an off day or may be a bad test-taker.â

One thing parents can do prior to high school, where the WASL is required for graduation, is opt their children out of taking the tests altogether â an option that Chew says teachers are not allowed to share with parents during school hours or by means of school computers or phones.

If just 10 percent of middle-schoolers opted out, he says, the WASL would be rendered meaningless â hopefully moving the discussion toward more teacher-based initiatives for improving student performance. As it is today under the No Child Left Behind Act, a school with poor WASL marks that fails to improve after three years must give its students the option to leave for other schools â something that only works against the school system, Chew says.

âThe problem with that â and this is already happening ââ he says, âis that when students who have problems that get in the way of achieving academically begin to leave a failing school and go to a passing school, they generally drag the passing school down.â

âAs time passes, more and more schools become failing schools,â he says, âso instead of having this progress that brings everybody up, because of the way the lawâs written, weâre actually dragging everybody down.â

And once a school gets to the bottom â Step 5, the last rung of the No Child Left Behind Act â the law requires it to engage in a complete restructuring, including entering into âa contract with an [outside] entity with a demonstrated record of effectiveness to operate the school.â

Chew says that means handing schools over to private companies, ones that âdonât have to follow any of the rules that public schools have toâ and donât have to hire unionized teachers either.

Next year, Chew has been told heâll be fired if he doesnât administer the WASL, but heâs hoping â on his own time, of course â to convince his parents to participate in a mass opt-out.

âCarl Chew is our hero at the moment,â says Juanita Doyon of Mothers Against WASL. âHe has said he will not allow the WASL to hurt his students. Itâs a very brave thing to do.â

— Cydney Gillis
Real Change News



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