An editorial in today’s Seattle Times agrees with Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposal to delay the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL in order to graduate from High School. But they reiterate their “grim assessment” that Washington students are woefully “ill-prepared for the rigors of math.”
No further evidence is needed than the failure of nearly half of the state’s sophomores — about 34,000 — on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning math test last spring and in summer re-takes.
Hmm. So… “no further evidence is needed” than students’ poor performance on the WASL. And yet, further down the editorial we find this throw-away little tidbit:
There is a disconnect when it comes to high-achieving students as well. Bellevue Superintendent Mike Riley tells Seattle Times education reporter Lynn Thompson that many of the district’s students do well on the math section of the SAT but stumble on the WASL.
So if students do well on the SAT, but stumble on the WASL, is that “evidence” that we aren’t preparing these students for math. Or rather, is it evidence that one or both of these tests suck? I mean, would it be okay if the majority of our state’s students passed the WASL, but performed far below the national average on the SAT?
Understand where I’m coming from on this. I’m a smart guy, but was not always the most diligent or cooperative student; I had a tough time spitting back what the teacher wanted, even knowing that doing so was a sure-fire path to an A. I also had a run-in with with an absolutely nutcase, 10th grade English teacher who picked me out as the annual uppity smart kid she liked to fail as an example to the rest of us uppity smart kids. That’s right, despite being one of the best writers in my class (throughout my academic career) I failed 10th grade English, often getting essays returned with a big fat zero, and no other marks or comments. (The teacher had tenure. She also died of a slow growing brain tumor a couple years later.)
So while I mostly got A’s in high school, my GPA was somewhat below that typically needed to qualify for our nation’s top colleges and universities. And yet at least one Ivy League school was willing to overlook my less than stellar GPA, at least partially because my SAT scores were so high.
See, there are a lot of smart people out there, and we can be smart in many different ways, but I happened to be blessed with something college admissions officers highly valued back in the early 1980’s: the standardized test taking gene.
I loved filling in those little circles. It was a puzzle. It was a game. And it was a game I always won.
On the English portion of these tests I could intuit the answer whether or not I could verbalize the grammatical and syntactic rules at play. Sentences either felt right, or they didn’t. And on the math portion of these tests I rarely had to do the math at all. I could almost always instantly eliminate one or two of the multiple choice answers, and make an educated guess that virtually assured me a better than 50-percent chance of getting it right.
I was like a card-counter at a blackjack table, and I always understood the unfair advantage I had over the house or the other players. In 9th grade, after playing around with a couple practice tests in an old prep book, I decided to take the Biology achievement test… and I nearly aced it. I’d never studied most of the subject matter, let alone a three-chamber heart, but one of the practice tests had almost identical questions about a two-chamber heart, and it didn’t take much to connect the dots.
The point is, the one thing these standardized tests are truly capable of evaluating is the ability of the student to take these standardized tests. They do not necessarily test the student’s grasp on the material, and they do not necessarily predict the student’s future performance in college or the real world. Hell… look at me: according to the SATs I’m a fucking genius, yet here I am blogging for free while my thermostat’s set to 58 and I’m struggling to pay my mortgage. How smart is that?
So when I read all these editorials and columns lamenting our student’s poor performance on the WASL, it absolutely infuriates me that nobody ever questions the performance of the WASL. I mean, did it ever occur to anybody that when it comes to measuring the ability of a typical high school student to grasp and apply a body of knowledge, that perhaps the WASL sucks? Is it so outside the realm of possibility to even consider the notion that the very same educators who are constantly being accused of failing to teach our children might also have devised a crappy means of measuring a student’s progress?
In fact, the WASL was never designed to serve as a graduation standard or as a measuring stick for punishing failing schools under President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” It was originally developed to provide schools with a tool for measuring academic progress so that they could better target their students’ needs. The purpose was not to teach to the WASL, but to use the WASL to help teachers better teach the students.
I’m not saying we’re doing a good enough job educating our students. Of course we’re not. And I’m certainly not arguing against the value of standards. But when grades say one thing, and SAT scores say another, and then the WASL says something entirely different… well… I fail to see the logic in assuming that the WASL is the be-all and end-all of academic standards. Indeed, if you spend a little time in the classroom and watch how distorted the curriculum has become, it’s beginning to look like this whole WASL craze has morphed into a faith-based initiative that’s doing more harm than good.
No doubt the WASL is a boon to tough-talking politicians and editorialists. But a passing score won’t pay your mortgage.