NKSD seniors rock the reading and writing WASL

NORTH END — The senior class of 2008 was the first ever to face passing the reading and writing portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) exam as a graduation requirement.

It’s a beastly requirement, as the reading WASL consists of reviewing six passages and answering a slew of multiple choice, short answer and extended response questions. For the writing WASL students must complete two multi-paragraph essays — expository and persuasive — and the list of grading criteria is demanding and exhaustive.

“At no other time has there been a minimal statewide competency level in order to receive a high school diploma. The class of 2008 is the first one,” said Wally Liss, director of Curriculum and Assessment. “Before it’s always been about seat time. Now it’s a combination of seat time and demonstrated skill level. That’s the magnitude of it.”

And this year’s graduating class brought the WASL house down. The district received the seniors’ test results on May 30.

Of the 517 seniors who took the WASL only 12 didn’t pass the reading and/or writing exam.

“Really when you think about it, it’s only 12 kids out of 517 who are impacted by the WASL,” Liss said. “They have the credits and would be in good shape if we don’t have the WASL. In 2007 these 12 would have been diplomas.”

The ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade WASL results have yet to be compiled.

Seniors aside, NKSD’s overall WASL performance at the high school level has steadily improved over the years.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Web site, in the 2004-05 school year 72.5 percent of NKSD 10th-graders passed the reading WASL while 61.4 percent passed writing. In 2005-06 those numbers jumped to 81.9 percent passing reading and 81.1 percent passing writing. In 2006-07, the last year for the data, 80.2 percent passed reading and 83.9 percent passed writing. The numbers align almost perfectly with statewide percentages.

Although passing the math WASL won’t be a graduation requirement until 2013, NKSD has a big hill to climb in that subject, as in 2004-05 only 43.1 percent of NKSD 10th-graders passed, in 2005-06 53.5 percent passed and in 2006-07 52.7 percent passed the math WASL.

The math need is on NKSD’s radar, however, a concrete solution is a few years out.

“We are in the midst of a math review process using state standards as a guide,” Liss said.

In 2005-06 the district bumped its math credit requirements to three, not so much out of concern for the WASL, but to better prepare students for college-level classes.

Liss said students tend to shine in the reading and writing departments because it’s been a district focus for years. Several labs and additional classes and hours of inservice training for teachers have been devoted to the subjects.

“That’s transfered to student success,” he said. “We’re not at that place in math, but it’s a goal of ours to get there.”

Although district students continue to perform well on the WASL, it remains a controversial test. Some question whether it’s an accurate assessment of student ability and others say the focus nowadays is not on learning the subject matter, but on passing a test.

“I don’t think it’s a great benchmark test for knowledge,” said Ellen Anderson, whose senior and fifth-grade sons have faced the WASL. “No one likes the WASL. I’ve never heard anyone say they’re excited to see what the WASL results are. I mostly hear grumbling from people who don’t want their kids taking it.”

Another potential drawback to the test, which has Anderson’s fifth-grader stressed out, is the cost. Especially with massive budget deficits and declining finances all around.

Nancy Moffatt, executive director of Finance and Operations, guesstimates the WASL costs the district $100,000 to $150,000 for staff time, postage, and everything that goes into processing and delivering the tests.

Actual or perceived negatives aside, the WASL does boast one giant positive: Students who do pass the WASL exams receive a Certificate of Academic Achievement (CAA) on their diploma.

“The intrinsic value has to be large for each student that received a CAA,” Liss said. “They’ve accomplished a goal that no one else in the state of Washington has ever accomplished. That should make their positive self worth at a very high level.”

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