Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Editorial Response to Teacher's WASL Opt-Out

Well naturally, the newspapers had to weigh in on Eckstein teacher Carl Chew's decision to not give the WASL to his students. The PI's response was more measured while the Times let Lynne Varner loose on it with just about what you'd expect. From the PI:

"We won't pass judgment on the science teacher's decision to refuse to administer the Washington Assessment of Student Learning; he says he is willing to accept consequences. The key is for Seattle Public Schools to impose adequate discipline, which is fair to the teacher and nuanced enough to discourage escalations of the tactic on others' part."

Well, the district may be able to stop teachers but they can't stop parents. If more parents opted out, the Legislature and OSPI would have to listen to their concerns. Mr. Chew mentioned that in California teachers can tell parents about this option. I didn't know it was not possible here for teachers to tell parents about opting out. Still, I note that Denise Gonzalez-Walker's blog over at the PI has had discussions on opting out and it seems more parents are learning about it all the time.

The PI then has some reasonable suggestions to ward off this kind of action:

"A group of legislators has asked state Auditor Brian Sonntag to examine a contract for WASL testing. There's nothing wrong with looking at whether the state is getting its money's worth. A further option would be to have a genuinely fair review of where the state is with WASL and whether any refinements are in order. "

Over at the Times, Ms. Varner strikes a bit more of a bombastic tone.

"The Eckstein Middle School teacher who characterized his refusal to administer the WASL as an act of civil disobedience deserves to have his bloviated defense cast right up there with Hillary Rodham Clinton evading sniper fire in Bosnia."

As someone on the front lines, Mr. Chew probably knows better than Lynne Varner what the WASL does and does not mean to students and its effect on them. (And Hillary said she misspoke which isn't the case here so I can't figure out what Ms. Varner is trying to say.)

She continues with some pretty hard to swallow statements like:

"Benchmarks like the WASL aren't perfect. More money and flexibility are needed."

Flexibility yes but money? More money thrown at the WASL? Does she know how much we have spent or do spend to give and score it?

Interestingly, then she goes on with some of the problems with the WASL:

"Teachers are forced to spend too much time preparing students for a test too narrow to be useful. Concerns over the erosion of recess, free time and the freedom for those eclectic teachers who best captivate students are well-founded."

"But such inflexibility in the lower grades robs us of meaningful information from the WASL. We need to know whether a student's failure on the math section came at the hand of algebra or more basic calculations. Moreover, fixating just on passing WASL ignores the incremental improvements students make."

"Another weakness is the test's inflexibility when it comes to special-education students and those who don't read English. Administering the test to students who don't have a remote chance of passing it serves no purpose other than to humiliate."

Sound like some valid problems here. So why the drama?

Ms. Varner seems to think, like many, if you raise your voice against the WASL, you are against assessments. That's only true for a very small minority of parents. Mr. Chew didn't say he was against assessments. He said he and other teachers do a see the need for assessments.

The flaw is in the testing instrument not the testing.

13 comments:

killthewasl said...

Assume we have the perfect test, designed over 20 years. So, at best, aceing the WASL means you WOULD have had a terrific life, if you lived 20 years ago, when the standards made sense. Do we really think that "standards" are immutable? That nothing changes in each generation? What about teaching students to be creative and flexible? The WASL is exactly the opposite of creative and flexible: It measures conformity to standardization. Is there no value to creativity and flexibility? Sure, most people can conform, can learn a standardized bit of something, understand it in a conforming way, and provide the expected conforming response to the standard.

BUT, not everyone IS capable of conforming to standardization. And when the stakes are so high (no graduation for students, no funds for schools), we are really saying there is no value to those people who can't conform. In fact, we actually really need all those people too! And perhaps we need them even more than the masses who can pass without a hitch.

Denise Gonzalez-Walker said...

When I blogged on April 8th about opting our son out, I considered encouraging others to do so as well, but ultimately decided to hold back. I wasn't up to being a public anti-WASL champion, although I deeply believe in my rationale for opting out--a long, well-researched argument that my son summarized for a friend: "my mom thinks the WASL is BS."

I was thrilled to see Carl Chew's action, along with his reasoning, get widespread coverage.

The teachers at our son's school were very supportive of our decision. Also, several parents have talked to me about how they are on the fence themselves, with significant concerns about the WASL, yet finding it hard to go against the grain and opt out.

By the way, I wholeheartedly agree with Melissa's sentiment that "the flaw is in the testing instrument not the testing."

Charlie Mas said...

My sixth grade daughter told me that she noticed a section on the back of the exam for the teacher to complete if the student didn't take the test. Among the reasons listed was "refused".

"Does that mean that I can refuse to take the test?" she asked.

"Yes. Of course. You always have the option to refuse. The test isn't part of your grade and you can't be required to complete it. they certainly can't require you to do your best."

"Would it be okay with you if I refused?" she asked.

"Sure. I don't care." I told her.

So there is an excellent chance that she will simply refuse to take the test. She will fill out the front page with her name and such, and then, as soon as the actual test begins, she will declare herself done with it and turn it in. She says that when students finish the test they sit quietly at their desks and read, so that's what she'll do.

I'm not sure how many of her friends she's going to share this idea with. Her only concern is that some school staff will be angry with her, but she isn't overly concerned about that.

Melissa Westbrook said...

If you write a letter saying she isn't going to take the test but will be at school, they have to find somewhere for her to be if you can't keep her at home (yet another alternative). They might say they don't but they do according to OSPI. She doesn't even have to sit through the test in her classroom (because that would be long and she can't have a book to read, I don't think). Make sure they got the letter; my son's teacher in 8th said she didn't have any letter and made him take the test - he didn't want to argue - but they "found" the letter after the test.

Your daughter is one brave girl to want to do this on her own.

Ad hoc said...

I think Melissa's idea in an earlier post is the way to go. An organized, mass WASL opt out. What better way to send a message to OSPI.

killthewasl said...

How about an organized website devoted to publishing the test questions, as remembered by the takers? It's absurd that these aren't widely available. We did pay for them didn't we?

Charlie Mas said...

Actually, my concern was that other students in her class, especially her friends, would see her refuse the test and do the same. She told me that none of her friends are in her block class. She thought that there was a chance that other students, seeing that she wasn't taking the test would refuse to take it as well. She also said that if she told her friends of her plans that they might also refuse to take the test in their various block classes, followed by other students seeing them and doing the same.

Her imagination quickly jumped forward to masses of students refusing to take the test all over the school. She regards herself and her friends as capable of setting a trend like that. I'm not sure that's very likely nor am I sure it would be desirable.

That wouldn't really be an organized effort to opt-out, and I'm sure there are some families somewhere who think it is important for their child to take this test. It just isn't important to me or my family. The results don't really provide us with any useful information.

Charlie Mas said...

Lynne Varner reads this blog and has written a follow-up to her original column. She thinks it will help explain some of the questions raised by Mel. She asked me to post a link to the Times blog where her additional remarks appear: The whipping post - WASL

There is a lot of back and forth about the WASL - about what it measures, how well it measures it, whether it is used appropriately, and role it should play - if any - as a gatekeeper to a diploma.

Discussion of the WASL gets tied into discussion of standards-based reform, reform math, NCLB, the Bush administration, the academic achievement gap, standardized testing, standardized curricula, back-to-basics education, education funding, education equity, and just about every other hot button issue there is. It is often difficult to narrow the topic of discussion to a single facet at a time. Some presume that if you are opposed to the WASL then you oppose a whole raft of good things associated with it. Others presume that if you support the WASL then you support a whole raft of bad things associated with it. The truth is that nearly every person's view is a wavy line between the opposing sides taking one side in some of the associated issues and the other side in some of the other associated issues.

I think that we can all agree that it is unacceptable for schools and districts to continue to fail to educate students. Students - and groups of students - who are failed by the system need to be identified and supported and the system needs to be repaired.

I think that we can all agree that we need to assess the effectiveness of schools and districts and provide interventions where needed.

I think that we can all agree that a high school diploma should indicate that the bearer has deomonstrated some minimal standard of knowledge and skills.

I think that we can all agree that the identification work - whether is be students, schools, or districts that are underperforming - isn't being followed by the necessary intervention work.

I think that we can all agree that the accountability that was supposed to be applied to the schools and districts is getting applied to the students instead. The state superintendent of public instruction announced that the state education system has failed to provide students with an adequate math education - yet it is the students who are paying the consequences for the adults' failure.

We can all agree on all of these points, and you will notice that none of these either require or preclude the WASL in its current state.

WenG said...

Lynne Varner still doesn't get it.

A teacher from the largest and most prestigious middle school in the state decided to take action. This is huge, and in my opinion, his decision is the tip of the iceberg. He’s voicing what many believe to be true: we’re taking a piece of the budget pie to force curricula to fit a test of limited value.

Does passing the WASL really guarantee that my kids will be able to compete with peers from other countries when it comes time to do real work in college or in their careers? No, I don’t think it does.

The WASL is making somebody a boatload of money. This is money leaving the classroom.

I have no respect for an editorial voice that refuses to seriously consider the reasons for what Mr. Chew chose to do.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Robert Jamieson of the PI weighed in today. He got some stuff wrong:

"goals...as set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act."

No, there are no goals just a directive to test in those 4 areas. What's in the test is left to the states. NCLB just wants to know if kids are taking a test and how many pass and how many fail.

He also puts down Mr. Chew's act as being unworthy of being an act of civil disobedience. I think, for a teacher, standing up for children when your job is teaching children is a worthy cause. It's not a matter that he thought it was boring or too long; Mr. Chew believes the WASL seriously hurts students.

There were 105 responses to Mr. Jamieson's column running about 2-1 disagreeing with Mr. Jamieson.

seattle citizen said...

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/horsey/

Melissa Westbrook said...

Saw that editorial cartoon, Seattle Citizen, and thought it was good.

dan dempsey said...

I believe that when you finish the WASL test the requirement is to sit quietly. I do not believe that if the instructions are followed as written that reading is a permitted activity.