Death of the WASL | New state school chief tells Bellevue News why he wants changes to graduation test

The WASL is on its way out after 12 years as the keystone of Washington's educational assessment system.

New State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn announced Jan. 21 that he will begin replacing the test in 2010. He had promised the exam’s demise during his campaign for office last year.

The superintendent has authority under state law to implement whatever assessment test he sees fit, but lawmakers could change that rule with new legislation if they disapprove of his plan.

Dorn is unfazed by that possibility.

“I’m going forward,” he said. “I’ve had over 50 legislators support me on this.”

Dorn plans to replace the WASL with the Washington Comprehensive Assessment Program (WCAP), which would include two forms of testing: the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) for grades 3-8 and High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE).

The new system is expected to cause less of a headache for students, as well as those who administer and grade the exams. They will be shorter, less expensive, computerized, and able to provide more diagnostic information, according to Dorn.

“We want to make the assessment innovative, but provide quality and efficiency,” Dorn said.

The WCAP will be less writing-intensive than its predecessor, requiring 25 percent essay answers whereas the current assessment involves around 40 percent. This is expected to make grading faster, as computers could do most of the work.

“Our tests need to be tied to technology and provide immediate feedback to teachers so they can better assist their students,” Dorn said in a statement. “Computerizing the tests will also require far less resources, both in time and money.”

Many teachers complain that WASL preparations consume their time in the classroom and restrict lesson plans. There has also been criticism about the length of the test.

Bellevue teachers union president Michele Miller said that the WASL has been a source of grief for everyone involved. She taught fourth grade at Cherry Crest Elementary for 19 years.

“It takes such a toll on the kids,” she said. “The impact on the classroom is just amazing. I’ve never had a year where kid’s didn’t cry.”

No changes will be made to the WASL during this school year because of time constraints, Dorn said.

The new computerized reading, math, and science tests will be available as an option to school districts in 2010, with full implementation by 2012.

The MSP will be offered twice a year, beginning in the fall of 2010. This would give students several chances to show proficiency and provide teachers with diagnostic information for those who are struggling.

There are no estimates yet for how much the WCAP system will cost to implement.

One of the primary concerns at this point is getting more computers into schools in poorer districts. Dorn said some of the funding for this work might come from President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

“People think all the money’s going to be spent on capital projects, but there’s also talk about using it to build the technology highway,” he said.

Miller applauded the superintendent’s testing revisions, but said the state should not require students to pass a single type of standardized exam in order to graduate.

“Having one high-stakes test be the end-all is not good for students,” she said. “It increases the drop-out rate and increases the stress on kids.”

High school students have to successfully complete the reading and writing portions of an approved assessment test before receiving a diploma.

Dorn said he will ask the Legislature to remove the 2013 deadline for math and science graduation requirements.

“I want to make sure they match up with the new curriculum recommendations we’re putting out,” he said.

Rep. Ross Hunter of the 48th Legislative District said he does not support bumping the math and science requirement.

“I think it would send a message to the children and the educational institutions in this state that we’re never going to have a graduation requirement,” he said. “That would be inappropriate.”

Dorn said he supports the current reading and writing standards, but noted that the state needs to monitor how well they are working.

Joshua Adam Hicks can be reached at jhicks@bellevuenews.us or 425-453-4290.