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Guest Editorial

Keep the WASL

BY DON C. BRUNELL

The pitched battle this legislative session in Olympia is over whether to keep the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) or jettison it. The reason for all of the consternation is this year's sophomore class must pass the 10th grade WASL tests or they won't graduate.

Some opponents argue the tests are too tough. But the fact is the 10th grade WASL tests 8th grade skills. That means that this "tough" standard requires that graduating seniors be able to do 8th grade work. Imagine the outcry if we actually required our 12th graders to be able to do 12th grade work like some countries do!

The WASL is a minimum standard of what our kids need to know, and experienced classroom teachers have a strong role in writing and refining the tests. Opponents say the WASL should be watered down or suspended until alternative assessments are developed. They say that by not letting students graduate, we are sentencing them to failure.

The truth is our students are already sentenced to failure if they leave high school without these basic skills.

When the legislature enacted education reforms in 1993, the idea was to ensure that a high school diploma meant something other than a certificate acknowledging that a student sat in a classroom for 12 years. Instead, it would represent a critical set of skills that every graduate needs to be successful.

During the time when the state set the WASL measurements, I sat on the state's accountability task force. Our job was to set goals for schools and districts to achieve as the 4th, 7th and 10th grade tests phased in. The idea was to identify problem schools and districts early and bring support to them quickly so they would be successful.

We fully recognized that schools vary within districts and around the state. We also knew that families are more mobile today, and that some districts have higher turnover rates, more non-English speaking students, or more low-income kids. We understood that some kids would struggle with the format of a pencil-and-paper test and acknowledged that some students would need extra help to get the skills they needed.

That's why we supported allowing struggling students to take the 10th grade WASL tests up to five times. That is why we back Gov. Gregoire's proposal to keep the WASL and add $38.5 million to assist struggling students with after-school and summer classes.

The important thing to remember is we need to ensure that students leaving high school know the basics. Technical schools, colleges and employers must have confidence that people coming to them have at least the fundamental knowledge and skills to build upon.

Some complain that schools are forced to "teach to the WASL test." That's exactly right. The WASL test is designed to determine if students have learned the information and skills they need. It also tells us when students are struggling and where they need extra help.

When our military trains people, it "teaches to the test" because combat leaders know from experience the knowledge and skills recruits need to survive in battle. Just like our teachers who developed the standards measured on the WASL know what skills students need before they leave high school

Consider this real-life example: When I went through basic training, recruits had to pass a physical training test, shoot marksman or better on the rifle range, and successfully navigate what was called "military stakes." The stakes were a dozen or so stations soldiers ran to and performed essential skills in an allotted time. The stations tested proficiency in things like assembling and disassembling your weapon and administering first aid - all of which help keep people alive in battle.

While most soldiers passed on the first try, those who did not were tested again. Those who struggled stayed in the program until they got the skills, because sending ill-trained troops to the front line not only endangered them but the others in their unit.

The same goes for high school. Handing students a high school diploma without ensuring they know their stuff sentences them to a lifetime of failure and burdens generations of taxpayers with the costs of remedial education and social services for the unemployed and underemployed.

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

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