Washington State doing it right!

I am originally from Washington State, Spokane to be exact…which is why I have Gonzaga winning it all in the March Madness tournament. :)

After years of telling the public how horrible the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) is. The Seattle Times ran this article last week entitled: Exit exam changing state’s classrooms.

I have been a huge fan of the WASL ever since it came into existence. After all it did allow me to get my first job. Straight out of college in 1999 the WASL was scaring educators left, right, and center. Here was a new test that focused not on the outcome or the content but the process.

The WASL — some $100 million in the making, from the designing to the scoring — is copyrighted and unique to Washington. It is unlike any off-the-shelf, multiple-choice test most parents took. It’s designed to evaluate not only knowledge but skills: critical thinking, reasoning and writing.

In 1999 roughly 60% of all elementary teacher opening in the state where in 4th grade. The grade that the WASL is given in. Needless to say my first 3 years of teaching were in 4th grade, and if and when I ever return to the states, I would love to go back to 4th grade. I love that grade level and the WASL.

Why? Even back in 1999 I saw the transformation this test was making to education. We were not focusing on content but the process. For example on the math question, the student not only has to figure out the right answer, they also have to tell you how they got the answer. The great part is, the student can get the answer wrong, but if the process and thinking is clear they can still pass the question. If the process is right but the end result is wrong you don’t get 100%, but you don’t get 0% either. Because if you know the process the answer will come…maybe you just made a simple mistake, but if you can explain your answer in words then you have a chance of still passing the test question.

As for students, they need a deep-enough understanding of their subjects to be able to explain their reasoning — even on the math test.

Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about in technology? The transformation that needs to happen in education? A focus on the process not the content. Content changes…the half life of knowledge is about 18 months, but the process, the skills to be able to think, analyze and communicate thinking never will. These skills are what we need to be teaching. The WASL is the only test that I know of that allows students to get the content wrong, but if they can successfully communicate their knowledge and process then they still can gain points on the test. I worked at a school with a 95% free and reduced lunch population (which is used to group school’s scores) In my two years at the school our math scores on the WASL went from 12% passing to 22% passing. Why, because in class we worked on communicating our answer, we didn’t worry whether the answer was right or wrong until we understood and could communicate the process. Only after we could communicate the process did we focus on the correct answer.

But even many critics of the WASL’s use as a graduation requirement see
it as a valuable measure of how kids and schools are doing.

Nearly 70 percent of teachers responding to an internal poll by the
Washington teachers union said in October 2005 that the test should
continue to be used as one measure of student performance, though not
as a graduation requirement. That was up from just 53 percent of
teachers polled in 2000.

Some teachers also see virtue in a test that is bringing new
accountability and fresh approaches to instruction. “I’m using a lot
more games, lots of counters, pieces, things kids can manipulate,” said
Watling, who’s been teaching for 36 years.

This is great 70% of teachers now see that the WASL has it right (in my opinion) now how easy is it for teachers in Washington State to use technology. Where learning to analyze information, communicate finding, and focusing on the process rather then the outcome is standard. Maybe this is why postings like: Learning: the journey or the destination? from George Siemens hit home with me. That’s the foundation of my belief in education. The journey to the answer is more important then the answer itself. Sure a correct answer is what we are looking for, but the journey is where the learning takes place, where we are allowed to experiment, to learn, to create understanding.

“You have a better sense of what kids can actually do with the
knowledge they have, rather than whether they recognize whether
something is correct,” said Catherine Taylor, an associate professor of
educational psychology at the University of Washington who helped
design the test.

How schools and teachers prepare their kids to meet the standards,
through their curriculum and instructional materials, is a matter of
local control, decided district by district.

But the high-stakes test has put a new accountability in public
education, teachers and education professionals say. Instead of just
covering a lot of stuff year after year they hope prepares kids for
life — spray and pray, Taylor calls it — teacher instruction is
increasingly aimed at deep conceptual understanding and meeting state
standards.

Gee, you mean Shallow Standards/Deep Learning works?

The WASL is also a largely homegrown product. A private consultant
wrote the first version of the test, based on specifications devised by
committees of educators across the state.

Washington educators have been revising the test ever since, writing
new questions that continually improve the test’s fit to the state’s
academic standards. Those were set after years of work by Washington
educators, business leaders, parents and community members.

Keeper questions are those that effectively assess what knowledge
students have and the strategies they use to solve mathematical
problems, comprehend what they read or write competently.

This kind of sounds like Perpetual Education to me.

No, the WASL is not perfect, and I understand some of the frustrations that educators have with the test and their feelings behind the results and what the test is used for. But in the end I think Washington is on the right track focusing on the journey and not just the destination.

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