Testing the Waters

Lawmakers rethink the importance of the WASL and opt for more study.

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) proved too hot for the Legislature this session. Faced with a contentious debate over whether to keep the WASL as a high-school graduation requirement, lawmakers late last week decided to push the issue through that well-worn escape hatch called “a study.”

Education advocates with fiercely different views ultimately got behind a proposal that directs the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a state research organization at Evergreen State College, to study the characteristics of students failing the high-stakes test. With that data, it will examine the usefulness of bills floated this session, which ranged from scrapping the WASL to using it as one of several measures of student achievement. The institute would also consider alternative requirements for graduation in other states.

The Legislature did take some decisive action, but very limited in scope. As expected, both chambers agreed to a few WASL alternatives — like a portfolio of student work — that largely came from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Crucially, though, students could only employ those alternatives after taking and failing the WASL twice, leaving in place a great deal of emphasis on the test. The big question facing the Legislature was whether to keep that emphasis on the WASL, and that’s the question left hanging by the call for a study. “This is definitely a compromise,” Senate education chair Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, says of the study. “It’s critically important that we weren’t in the middle of a battle.”

Well, actually, they were. On one side were groups that had come to the Legislature determined to reform the high-stakes system, which threatens to leave thousands of students with nowhere to go at the end of their senior year, puts crushing pressure on all kids, and arguably narrows curricula. (See “The Stress Test,” Nov. 23, 2005.) Those groups included the Washington Education Association, which is the state teachers union, the Washington state PTA, and education activists aligned with former Gov. Booth Gardner. On the other side were the business community, the governor, and OSPI, all of whom were not prepared to back away from the test, which they see as raising standards. They employed direct mail and radio ads to press their point of view.

The teachers union, too, had radio ads set to go, according to WEA President Charles Hasse. In the end, the union decided not to use them. The WEA made the assessment that even if the union and its allies won the day, fractures created in the education community would be great and reduce support for increasing school funding. “Let’s turn the volume down a little,” Hasse says was the prevailing sentiment. He and others are hoping that next year, when the Legislature returns to the question with the benefit of the institute’s study results, emotions will have cooled. “I’m really disappointed,” says Juanita Doyon, director of Mothers Against WASL. She had hoped for action. And she notes that the study won’t consider whether the WASL is a valid test. She believes it is not.

Still, this session brought more open debate on the WASL than there’s been in years — no surprise given that this year’s sophomores are the first who must pass it to graduate. Last year, state PTA government affairs director Mary Kenfield found Olympia gave the WASL a yawn. This year, she says, “When I say I want to talk about the WASL, I have an open door with pretty much any legislator.”