By Nina Shapiro
Mon., Oct 9 2006 at 12:00AM

A couple weeks ago, as the state released scores from student performance last spring on the gut-wrenching, high-stakes test known as the WASL, or Washington Assessment of Student Learning, I sat down in a quiet conference room to take it myself. I wanted to get to the bottom of whether or not it's too hard. The idea that the WASL is inappropriately difficult is being proffered by a number of people, including Judith Billings, who made her opposition to the test a central part of her challenge to unseat WASL-defending Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. (Results of that primary-election race)

The consequences are great. Kids who don't pass the WASL don't, as of 2008, get to graduate from high school, pretty much making the test a gatekeeper of life's opportunities. Even in countries where testing standards have been in place for years, no exam matters that much. If students get low marks on Britain's General Certificate of Secondary Education, for example, they pursue perfectly respectable vocational options; they aren't considered the equivalent of high-school dropouts, nor are they dubbed failures. Is what's on the WASL, as Bergeson and others claim, so crucial to a successful adult life in the modern age that all students should be expected to master it? Or, as critics contend, does it entail high-level academics that are irrelevant to many kids who could go on to lead productive lives in blue-and white-collar fields alike?

Test results so far are unequivocal on one point: Students are finding the test difficult, to put it mildly. While Bergeson declared "outstanding gains" when she publicized the recent scores, the bottom line was depressing, as it has been for years. Just 39 percent of 10th-graders passed the reading, writing, and math sections—the graduation requirement beginning 2008. Even fewer students, 32 percent, passed the science WASL, as needed for a diploma in 2010. Among black students, the results are cataclysmic: No more than 16 percent met the 2008 graduation standard.

Washington, in fact, has one of the highest flunk rates on state tests nationwide. Of 20 states with high-school exit exams studied by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group, only Arizona had more students failing. Other studies consistently show the WASL to be significantly harder than most states' tests. The Northwest Evaluation Association, a Portland nonprofit specializing in assessment, determined that students would have to be in the 73rd percentile nationally (with 100 being the best) to pass the 10th-grade math WASL. "It's extremely, extremely, extremely difficult," says the association's research director, Gage Kingsbury. "I don't know of another state that has as difficult a requirement for graduation in math."

To really understand what's being demanded of kids, the math WASL seemed the place to start. I did not have the full test at my disposal—only 13 questions from 2004, 31 percent of the test. The other questions are kept under wraps and recycled for future years. (To take the test yourself, go to the state superintendent's Web site, www.k12.wa.us/assessment/WASL/testquestions.aspx .) I prepared for humiliation. Though I did well in high-school math, taking calculus my senior year, I dropped out of the one and only college math class I tried. Since then, I hadn't done any math more advanced than percentage computation for various news articles.

I needed more math than that for the WASL. One early question showed a Cartesian graph with nine points plotted. You had to say which points had x coordinates that were one-third of their y coordinates. I was glad there was a multiple-choice answer, because I came up with one less point than any of the options, until I realized that I had overlooked a point on the graph. The next question sent me searching for a protractor (some questions allow the use of tools, while others don't).

Most questions were doable, but it was a workout. In one word problem, the most typical kind of math question, I had to discern a pattern of stacked boxes—they were sequential squares—then continue the pattern. Another talked about a Mr. Lansing, who wanted to increase the size of his square garden by four. If he tore down the rickety, 80-foot fence that enclosed the old garden and built a new one around the larger garden, what would be the length of the new fence and the area of the new garden? The hardest part of that question was the required written explanation and/or diagram as part of the answer. So after I divided the 80-foot fence by four to get each side's length, multiplied two sides together to get the area, quadrupled the area and divided that by four to get the length of each side in order to compute the perimeter, I had to document every step.

The question I found most difficult showed two balanced scales. On either side were differing combinations of cubes, triangles, and spheres. The question: How many spheres will balance one cube? First I wrote two equations for each scale, using C's, T's, and S's, for cubes, triangles, and squares. But I couldn't remember how to work with two equations simultaneously, or for that matter, one equation. I looked at the picture again. What if I started taking off equal numbers of the same object on both sides of the scales? That got me somewhere. I kept writing new equations as I did so, until I simplified the equations for each scale, enough to plug one into the other. It took me a long time, maybe 20 minutes.

In fact, by the time I looked up from the math test, an hour and 15 minutes had gone by and I was starving. I took an undoubtedly illicit break for lunch before spending another 35 minutes on the test—putting me way over the recommended (but not enforced) time guidelines.

The reading test, in comparison, was a breeze—took me only 25 minutes. I had two passages to read, one about the history of the Postal Service, the other a fable about two bickering woodcutters in a faraway kingdom who competed in making ornaments for their ruler. In terms of what kids need to comprehend in life to succeed, the fable seemed a poor choice of material. But the questions were mostly easy, requiring you to pick out a few details from the passages for either a multiple-choice answer or a short essay. There were a couple of odd questions, though, which could easily inspire wrong answers. One, in reference to the Postal Service history, asked you to choose from several options about what was likely to happen in the near future—something that was neither stated nor implied in the passage, which dealt with the period from 1840 to 1880.

I was tested out. I added up my scores for the day using grading rubrics that the state provides. With my exertions in math, I got full credit for all the questions. Unsurprisingly, I aced the reading test, too.

The science test, however, was another story. I took that the following day. I lost unexpected points on one question that required you to plan an investigation— including hypothesis, materials, and procedure—into the effect of different shoes on a runner's sprint time. I thought I had the hypothesis cold: Different shoes would allow the runner to run faster. I didn't know until the rubric told me that a technically correct hypothesis has to include a cause and effect—i.e., the new shoes will have more traction—nor did I realize that a thorough procedure entails repeated trials and "validity measures" like running at the same time of day.

There were many more things I needed to know for the science test but didn't: the fact that light from the sun reflects off the moon and travels to Earth, that night clouds act like a blanket to hold in the day's heat, and the disadvantages of solar energy compared to fossil fuel. All in all, I got 70 percent of the possible science points—a passing score if not a particularly good one.

So there I was with satisfactory scores on math, reading, and science. I didn't bother taking the writing test, in part because the grading seemed too subjective to score myself.

Whew. I qualified as a hardworking 10th-grader. Yet I had sweated over the math and science tests. While both seemed far from impossible, they demanded skills and information—solving two equations with three variables, for instance—that absolutely never come up in my daily adult professional life. If the WASL is meant to test necessary life skills, it's too hard. If the test is meant to be something else, someone should articulate it.

I canvassed six high-school math and science teachers around the city. They profess that most kids should be able to pass the WASL. But without exception, none considers the WASL a test of basic skills. "It's not like the three R's," says Susan Brierley, co-chair of the science department at Garfield High School. "It's being able to think and apply something you know to something you don't know."

What's more, teachers say, by the spring of sophomore year, when students take the WASL, their curricula up to that point might not have covered all the material on the test. Ingraham High's math chair, John Boucher, says that students don't normally see three variables in an equation until junior year. If they're on track, that is. "The biggest problem for us is that we have kids coming in way below grade level," says Garfield math chair Ginny Burton. And that science question about light reflected off the moon? Ballard science chair Megan Vogel says kids might not learn that until a physics class in their junior or senior year—if kids choose to take such a class. In fact, she says, noting that she concentrates on biology, "I don't think I could answer that and get full credit."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com