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Who's afraid of the big, bad WASL?

By KENNY CHING

Staff writer

Few can be indifferent to the WASL: The test that beginning in 2008 all 10th-graders will need to pass to graduate; that currently relatively few 10th graders are actually passing entirely; and will get even harder in 2010 when a science section is added.

Education officials met Monday night with parents and students to help them understand how to handle the test. But Tuesday night, detractors met to criticize the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning).

The two groups disagreed over some major points:

• Whether the WASL is socioeconomically biased.

• Whether it is causing teachers to “teach to the test” and thus hurting education overall.

• And whether any real need for educational reform exists in Washington.

People –– not their income, nor their education –– make the difference, said PTA leaders who who made a presentation Monday at the WASL parent night. They emphasized that any parents who got involved in their children’s education would make it more likely that the students would experience academic success.

PTA officials said the knowledge tested on the WASL is widely known and available. Therefore, parents should contact teachers and find out what information their children need to know in order to meet the grade level standard, officials said. They added that parents, wherever possible, should also be involved in the classroom and child’s homework, which can lead to higher student achievement and therefore higher WASL scores.

All of this was said to emphasize that any parents, regardless of socio-economic status, could help their student achieve WASL success.

But detractors claimed at a meeting put on by the Citizens United for Responsible Education (CURE) Tuesday night that the WASL is highly biased against poor and minority students .

“Socioeconomic status is an indicator of success” on the WASL, said CURE representative Bob Ward, who presented information gathered by professor Donald Orlich of Washington State University. “Using the fairness doctrine, that’s a strong indictment of the WASL.”

However, it wasn’t clearly explained by CURE officials why socioeconomic status, for a variety of complex reasons, is widely known to be an indicator of general academic success.

Pat Cummings, director of assessment for Federal Way Public Schools, said that many measure are taken to prevent bias, including running WASL questions past a “bias review committee.”

Another of CURE’s criticisms was that because graduation was at stake, the WASL was causing educators to teach to the test, therefore eviscerating liberal arts education.

At their meeting, PTA presenters specifically denied that claim. Cummings answered the criticism in a different way.

“Is the question ‘Do teachers teach to the test?’ You would hope that they would,” Cummings said.

Educators have been called to get back to the basics of education, making sure students read and write well and can perform math at higher levels, he said. Testmakers have tried to clearly define what this means, and the WASL attempts to test these defined areas, Cummings said.

A student who is weak in these areas won’t do well on the WASL, he said. This fact hurts students with strengths in other areas like art and music, it was said at the CURE meeting.

CURE’s Ward also said there was no real need for educational reform in Washington. Rather, education is quite good when compared to other states and other nations, he said.

On that issue, Cummings said, “Is education actually as bad as it’s often portrayed in the popular press? No. There is legitimacy to the claim that schools are doing much better than they are given credit for. But education reform is not about giving children standards equal to the past, but better.

“The WASL is meant to measure world-class skills. Other states, like California, set minimal standards, about equal to a middle-school education. Our state chose a different route of tougher standards that if a child achieved, that student will be extremely proficient in those areas. Under minimal achievement standards, you could dispense with educational reform. But if you believe that kids can meet high standards, then you’re looking at Washington’s education reform.”

CURE had numerous other complaints about the WASL, which are detailed on its Web site (www.curewashington.org).

Staff writer Kenny Ching: 925-5565, kching@fedwaymirror.com

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