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Thursday, September 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Beginner's guide to the WASL

Seattle Times staff reporter

Q: What is the WASL?

A: The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) was developed as part of the 1993 Education Reform Bill, which mandated new learning standards, a new state test and new accountability for students and schools.

Q: Who takes the WASL?

A: Students in grades four, seven and 10 are tested in reading, writing and math. Students in grades five, eight and 10 take science. Pilot tests in reading and math were given this year in grades three, five, six and eight, too. Next year, those exams will be required, as part of the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Q: What kind of test is the WASL?

A: WASL is designed to be different — and tougher — than traditional multiple-choice exams. While some of the questions are fill-in-the-bubble, the rest require students to write out answers and, often, to apply their knowledge. In math, students are expected to explain how they reached a solution to some problems.

Q: What's at stake for schools?

A: The scores are posted publicly each year as one indicator of the quality of schools and districts. The reading and math sections of the test also are used to determine whether schools and districts meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Q: What's at stake for students?

A: In the past few years, scores have been placed on student transcripts. And this year's high-school sophomores will be the first class required to pass the reading, math and writing parts of the exam in order to graduate. Those students take the exam for the first time this spring. If they fail, they will have four more chances to retake the full test, or parts of it. The state also is working on a plan to allow students to show they have the skills in ways other than a paper-and-pencil exam.

Q: How does the No Child Left Behind Act fit in?

A: The federal government, through No Child Left Behind, requires states to ensure all students reach their states' standards in reading and math by 2014. Each state is judged by its own tests and its own definition of proficiency.

Q: How is the WASL scored?

A: Students receive an overall score on a scale of 1-4. A score of 1 is "below basic"; 2 is "basic"; 3 is "proficient"; 4 is "advanced." A score of 3 or 4 is considered passing. Last year, students who received 69 percent of the points on the 10th-grade reading test received a score of 3. In math, they had to get 65 percent to earn a 3.

Q: What are the main criticisms?

A: Critics question whether high stakes such as graduation should rest on one exam, even with retakes. They worry that too much emphasis on testing crowds out other subjects. They charge the state raised the expectations for students and schools without providing them with enough additional resources to achieve them. Some also say that the WASL's standards are far from basic — and are beyond what the average student can be expected to achieve.

Q: What do its proponents say?

A: Students will have up to five chances to take the test, so that students' futures don't rest on a single score. They view the WASL as a strong test, reviewed by some of the nation's top testing experts. They say that abandoning the tough job of raising expectations for students will hurt them far more in the long run than the stress of a high-stakes test. They think the standards are tough, but not too tough for well-taught, hard-working students.

Q: How hard is the exam?

A: That's an area of controversy. Studies are mixed. Some indicate the WASL is among the toughest in the nation. A recent study of the 10th-grade math exam, however, concluded that the WASL had less algebra and geometry than exams in six other states.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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