Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, April 06, 2007

Emasculating the WASL, The Fix Is In

Educational accountability takes another long sabbatical and perhaps goes into retirement..

Clearly, the time has come to shoot the messenger, or at least bury him. The Washington Assessment of Student Learning continues to reveal that a great many of Washington’s pupils are not learning the bare minimum that the state has established for earning a high school diploma. There are only two explanations for this failure – slow students or poor teachers.
No politician in this state is stupid enough to blame the failure on intellectually deficient students. And the deep-pocketed teachers’ unions are too powerful and too influential for the party in power to risk offending. So, the solution to the dilemma is to blame the test.
The scores from the 2005-2006 school year showed that only 56% of Washington’s students passed the mathematics portion of the 10th grade WASL. Only 38% knew enough about science to pass that section.
Three years ago, the state eliminated the “listening section” of the exam because scores were embarrassingly low. The legislature plans to cut and run from science next.
Fixing the education system is not an option. Not when the Seattle school system condemns, “having a future time orientation,” (planning ahead) as a manifestation of “cultural racism.” This would include such offenses as studying for an exam or budgeting time for a term paper.
So the focus now turns not to improving student or teacher performance, but to “fixing the WASL.” Although I suspect that what the legislators mean by fixing has more in common with the way that the Mafia fixes sporting events than it does with the way that an electrician fixes a faulty circuit. Although, considering who is in charge over in Olympia, it may be more like the way that a veterinarian fixes a dog.
In any event, the one fix that seems most certain is postponing the enforcement elements of the WASL for at least 5 years. So, students, their parents and most importantly, their teachers, will be granted a stay of execution while the legislature dithers on what to do next. One thing that is clear, the fix will not have anything to do with bringing student performance up to the standards of the WASL.
Now, it is well known that any jackass can simply sit back and criticize. Offering genuine solutions takes some imagination. And so, as a civic duty, I would like to offer a few suggestions, consistent with the mood of the state’s power brokers, that our current legislature might want to consider, since holding teachers accountable for the quality of their work is not even a starting point.
Washington may want to test students on what students want to learn or what Washington’s schools actually want to teach them.
We could have a WASL section that measures just how high an opinion each student has of himself. Public schools have for a couple of decades now encouraged students to hold themselves in the highest regard, on the unproven assumption that high self-esteem translates into improved academic performance. The current WASL shows otherwise, so we need to change the WASL so that it will estimate the disproportion between achievement and self-esteem and award students scores based upon that ratio. Washington’s students should score off the charts.
Students could also be asked to recite the lyrics of the most popular hip hop rap tunes. Students who haven’t the slightest idea what reading assignment their teacher just gave them could probably repeat in rhythm ever word of the 5 most popular rap songs on the radio on any given day.
It’s also possible that the legislature will conclude that the medium used to administer the test is flawed. If students could take their tests via text messaging, that might modernize it enough to hold their concentration. The state would send the questions and the students would reply using cell phones. Or perhaps the test could be reformatted to resemble a video game. To graduate, students would have to reach the game’s highest level and defeat the final boss at multiplication tables.
No doubt about it. The WASL is going to be fixed. It’s just a matter of how the legislature is going to sell it to a public that still thinks that the quality of education needs improvement. Maybe they could do it the old-fashioned way and could start with those magic words: “Now, this won’t hurt a bit, Fido.”

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