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Guest Editorial

Another reason to support the WASL

BY DON C. BRUNELL

The campaign against the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) is growing more intense as it comes closer to having a real impact. This year's freshmen will be the first to have their WASL scores determine whether they graduate.

Remember, the WASL was set up to determine if students can read, write, listen, think and perform sets of math skills before they advance to the next grade or graduate from high school. The point is to make sure that a high school diploma means more than that a student sat at a desk for four years.

The WASL's objective standards mean colleges, technical schools and employers can significantly reduce the billions of dollars they spend each year teaching kids what they should have learned in the K-12 system.

Not surprisingly, some students don't think much of the WASL. In fact, freshmen at Seattle's Rainier Beach High put their complaints on video. One student after another criticized the WASL and complained that they aren't properly prepared or they don't have good teachers or the WASL's standards are too high or having to pass a test to graduate is just plain unfair. If these kids think that's unfair, wait until they get out in the real world.

But one comment in that video caught my attention. A student named Brittany noted that she and other students who get good grades might not be able to pass the WASL. Brittany's comment raised a good question: How could high school students who get A's and B's flunk the WASL? While some of it might be explained by "freezing up" on tests, there's another possibility: Grade inflation - giving A's and B's for work that previously earned B's and C's.

The issue of grade inflation surfaced anew when this year's graduating class at Seattle's Garfield High School included 44 valedictorians - almost 11 percent of the senior class. True, Garfield is an exceptional school full of honor students, but even one of the Garfield valedictorians theorized that grade inflation was a core factor.

Garfield isn't alone in this trend. Inglemore High School in Kenmore graduated 26 valedictorians, while Bullard High School in Fresno, Calif. is graduating 58 valedictorians this year.

It could be that today's students are that much better than they used to be. Or, it could be that the grade inflation that plagues higher education has seeped down into K-12. According to a report by the College Board, which administers the SAT and high school Advanced Placement courses, the average GPA of college-bound seniors had risen from 3.15 to 3.28 over the last decade.

Grade inflation is nothing new to higher ed. In an upcoming edition of the education journal, College Literature, Mark King writes that 82 percent of Harvard's graduating class of 2000 received some sort of honors. That same year, 43 percent of all grades awarded at Brown were A's, and 46 percent of all grades at Northwestern in 2000 were A's. Newsweek Magazine reported that the average grade at Duke University now approaches A-minus.

Hopefully, the objective standards provided by the WASL will help students, teachers, parents and prospective employers get an accurate assessment of whether our students are learning what they need to in order to succeed in the real world. After all, a high school diploma or high grade point are meaningless if someone can't be successful at work or home.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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