Student testing needs revision, Locke tells forum
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Gov. Gary Locke said yesterday that listening should be eliminated as one of the core testing areas in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and that future plans to add social studies, arts and health and fitness should be scuttled.
The WASL is a homegrown exam given to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders designed to test their mastery of reading, writing, math and listening.
Though the governor discussed scaling back the WASL with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, a spokeswoman for the office said she was surprised by the speech, given at a fund-raiser for schools.
"We think the listening test is an important test, and we also think arts, social studies and health and fitness are important content areas, and we look forward to having additional discussions with the governor about this proposal," spokeswoman Jocelyn McCabe said.
Changing the WASL would require the Legislature's assent.
Locke chose an Issaquah Schools Foundation fund-raiser at the Issaquah Community Center as the forum to oppose expanding the test. "I'm proposing that we limit the WASL to the basics. Why? Because the basics give us objectivity. They give us hard results that can be improved."
Listening, social studies, arts and health and fitness cannot be objectively measured and, therefore, aren't good assessment tools, Locke argued.
The listening part of the test requires students to listen to a passage that's read aloud and then answer questions about it. The scores on the listening portion have fluctuated so much that the state superintendent's office has concluded it has too few questions to give valid results.
It plans to improve the test by doubling the number of questions next spring. Social studies, the arts and health and fitness are scheduled to be added in increments, beginning in 2007-08.
Education-funding issues have hovered in the Issaquah air since early last month, when a teachers strike divided the community and delayed the start of school for three weeks. Locke praised both sides of the labor dispute. "The school year got off to a rough start. But in the best tradition of this community, students came first."
Locke also said education is his highest priority, despite the $2 billion deficit the state could face in the next biennium.
Two voter initiatives approved in 2000 — one that reduced class sizes and another that gave teachers an annual cost-of-living adjustment — will most likely test Locke's commitment in the next legislative session. The cost-of-living initiative is expected to cost $200 million in the next biennium, while the class-size initiative now costs about $200 million per year and is expected to rise sharply.
After the speech, Locke said he was committed to the principle of lower class sizes and higher teacher salaries but said he was waiting for a revenue forecast next month before making any budget decisions.
Locke also said the state isn't doing enough for low-income and minority children.
"The achievement gap is evident. It is evident in WASL test scores, kindergarten readiness, high-school graduation rates and college-going routes. Such gaps are unacceptable."
The test scores released last month reveal that the achievement gap between whites and many ethnic-minority groups narrowed a little in fourth grade, especially in reading, with scores of black students improving a percentage point more than whites' scores. The picture was mixed in seventh and 10th grades.
While Locke extolled the virtues of public education, the 600 members of the Issaquah Schools Foundation who each paid $100 to attend the event ate tahini salad. Before lunch, a Skyline High School string quartet played Handel while foundation members examined a set of exhibits that showcased the fruits of their largess, including a robotics program at Cougar Ridge Elementary School.
Since 1996 the foundation reported it has given $490,736 to Issaquah schools.
J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.