May 6, 2002
The purpose of I-780: Candidates should take the WASL
by David Marshak
I-780, "Candidates Take the WASL," has begun to attract the attention of voters throughout the state, particularly now that we have once again entered the three weeks of WASL testing. I am writing to explain the purposes of I-780.
I-780 is intended to educate the public more fully about the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) system and to bring attention to the requirement that students will soon need to pass the 10th grade WASL to graduate from high school.
What particular aspects of the WASL system should people consider?
(1) The legislature has defined the WASL as the measure of a high school education.
Passing the 10th grade WASL is what it means to be well enough educated to move into the adult world. This is true for all students, no matter what their backgrounds, interests, skills, language bases, or any other factors are.
But is the 10th grade WASL really a measure of what competent, successful adults know and can do? Or is the WASL an assertion of a double standard in which we are compelling young people to meet a standard that many adults do not meet?
I-780 asks anyone running for public office to be measured alongside the WASL yardstick defined by our state legislature, to see how they measure up against those standards set for high school students: for 10th graders, for 16 year olds. If the WASL has validity for students, it should certainly have validity for candidates and voters. If the 10th grade WASL is a measure of what adults need to know and be able to do to be successful in our world, then would this not be the case for elected officials, too?
(2) A single test cannot be an accurate, defining measurement of any student's knowledge and skills.
There is no single test that can accurately and fairly measure what someone knows and can do. All it can reflect is what the student knew on a particular day, through the limited and inevitably biased medium of a particular test.
I agree that students should have some common knowledge base and some common skills to graduate from high school.
However, I believe that given the diverse nature of human beings and the diverse resources that students gain from their families and communities, we need to provide students with a variety of ways through which they can demonstrate that knowledge and these skills, including tests and other means, for example, projects, performances, displays, and community service.
(3) We know there are many people in our society who are bright, capable, and gifted who do not perform well on standardized, paper and pencil tests.
We know that there are people with gifts who do not perform well under the kind of pressure created by high stakes testing.
The WASL privileges people who are good test takers and harms those who are not good test takers.
But the activity of taking tests has very little value in and of itself. Who makes a living or contributes to society or helps other people simply by being good at taking tests?
What remedies do I propose to what I see as flaws in the WASL system? First let's do away with a single high stakes test. It's indefensible both morally and technically. Let's create in its place a system of assessments that really communicates who a young person is and what he or she knows and can do.
The assessments should help students, teachers, and parents know what the student's strengths and weaknesses are, and they should lead to more effective teaching and learning. Some reduced, less expensive version of the WASL could certainly be one element of this assessment system.
Then let's provide adequate resources and support to meet the needs of each student. Putting educational dollars into the pockets of test makers does not serve the best interests of the students or society.
More than $100 million has gone into the development and implementation of the WASL; this is money that could have been used to better educate our students. Now even more money will be spent on the WASL if we have to give it every year from grades 3-8, as required by new federal legislation.
I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the WASL system and where it will lead us.
I also encourage you to examine the text of I-780 for yourself. You can find it on the web at: www.democracy.org
David Marshak is an associate professor in the School of Education at Seattle University. He is a co-sponsor of I-780.