Relax, it's just a test


The Mirror

At Sacajawea Middle School, staff members danced and cheered for students. Kristi White at Lake Grove Elementary School had a panel of older students talk to younger peers.

Both events have the same goal: Reduce stress and anxiety and pump up students for taking the state's assessment test.

"What we've realized as the years have passed is that the kids are concerned" about the test, said Sacajawea principal Brenda McBrayer.

The WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) is given from April 18 to May 5. Students from third through fifth grades, seventh-graders and sophomores in Federal Way Public Schools are taking all or portions of the exam, depending on their grade level. Their peers across the state are also taking the test.

Fourth, seventh and 10th-grade students take the math, reading and writing sections of the exam. Sophomores also take science, as do fifth and eighth-graders.

This year, more grades are taking parts of the exam. In Federal Way, they are called mini-WASLs.

A bigger emphasis is being made on test-taking strategies, coping with stress and getting students excited about the exam than in the past. Part of that, White believes, is because educators and parents are realizing the test is here to stay. She is charged with helping students prepare for the exam.

Now that the exam expanded from three grades –– fourth, seventh and 10th –– to others, there are more people involved in preparing and taking it. It's created more of a community sentiment, with the PTA providing drinks, snacks and pep talks before the tests start each day, said White, Lake Grove's reading assessment facilitator.

The school district has also gotten into the stress-release market. Posters of the WASLmaniac were placed around the schools. Looking like the hipper cousin of Warner Bros.' Tasmanian Devil, the WASLmaniac encourages students to get excited –– not anxious –– about the exam.

Fliers go home to parents explaining the test and what they can do to help, including making sure their children get enough sleep at night and eat breakfast.

Students have been taking it since 1996, when fourth-graders took the reading, writing, math and listening tests. In the years since, the WASL has expanded to other grades and more subjects.

The listening portion was cut in 2004 after the Legislature opted not to fund it.

In 2008, passing reading, writing and math as a sophomore will be required to graduate from high school. This year's freshmen have to pass in 2006, but have further opportunities to retake test portions they don't pass.

Last year, a little more than 38 percent in Federal Way passed the three sections, and statewide nearly 39 percent.

Critics say the WASL is a "high-stakes test" and shouldn't determine if students are succeeding or failing. Each fall, the state superintendent of public instruction releases the results to a blizzard of news coverage. Newspaper headlines, columns, editorials and letters make conclusions based on the scores.

Using the test alongside other measurements is optimal for concluding if students are learning in school, according to the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union.

In 2001, the test gained further notoriety when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It mandated states develop methods to find out if students were meeting certain criteria in the law. The WASL is used to make that decision in Washington. Other states use different assessment tests.

Anecdotally, Jean Carpenter, executive director of Washington State PTA, hears of parents moving their children to private schools to avoid the WASL and others who send their kids to relatives in states without the test.

A colleague's child is sick this week and the mother believes it's stress-related, Carpenter said. Students aren't the only ones at home worrying about the exam. Parents are also anxious, she said.

The state PTA had a poll on its Web site in October that more than 1,100 people answered over one week. While 21 percent disagreed the test put too much strain on students, 68 percent agreed and 11 percent were neutral.

When asked if the WASL focused on skills students need to succeed after high school, 43 percent of the respondents agreed, while 35 percent disagreed and 22 percent were neutral.

PTA believes in education reform, Carpenter said, but is of the opinion the state education system doesn't have the resources to make it work as intended.

Federal Way schools make use of the resources they have. In March, fifth-grade students from Sunnycrest Elementary school spent the day at Camp Kilworth getting hands-on class time to help them with the science portion of the WASL. Staff from Camp Thunderbird, who ran the district's outdoor education program, worked with students identifying pollution in the environment. Other classmates trekked to Highline Community College's marine science lab on Redondo Beach to see and learn about sea life and animals and plants that live in the ocean.

Dapinder Jourha, 11, said the program was interesting and he enjoyed spending the time out of class.

As the test drew nearer, White and the teachers at Lake Grove spent time talking to students about anxiety, how to handle stress with relaxation techniques and test-taking tips.

What seems to have helped students most is hearing from their elders, she said. A panel of students who passed all three sections last year spoke about how they approached the test.

For added incentive, those who pass all three parts of the test go to a pizza party the following year.

Back at Sacajawea, students who passed all three portions were honored at a rally in front of the students taking the test now.

"We wanted (the younger students) to see it's very possible" to pass, principal McBrayer said, noting those who passed crossed the spectrum of Sacajawea students.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565,

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