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By 2010, WASL is history

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By Jerry Cornfield
and Eric Stevick
Herald Writers
OLYMPIA -- State schools chief Randy Dorn ambitiously declared Wednesday he will dump the WASL in a matter of months and start giving students a slimmed-down test with fewer questions and the ability to be taken and graded on computers.
The yet-to-be developed tests would take students less time to complete and results could be known in two weeks.
Dorn vowed the exams won't be less rigorous and high school students will still be required to pass the reading and writing portions to graduate, he said.
"This is a big day for the education of our youth," Dorn said. "We can do better by our kids."
Dorn set a tight timeline for the transition.
The Washington Assessment of Student Learning will be given this year.
Next year, students in grades three through eight will take his new Measurements of Student Progress tests while older students will be given the High School Proficiency Exams.
These tests will differ from WASL in several ways, including:
- fewer long-answer questions in reading, math and science;
- reading passages will be shorter and not exceed one computer-screen length;
- more fill-in-the-blank questions;
- reading, math and science tests will be given on computers.
Dorn, who is in his first full week as superintendent of public instruction, promised to get rid of the WASL during his successful campaign to unseat incumbent Terry Bergeson.
As a state lawmaker, he played a role in writing the education reform bill in 1993 that spawned creation of the WASL. Since then, the reform process "went off track," he said.
The WASL has been a divisive issue.
On one side were lawmakers, the state teachers union and parent groups who wanted to overhaul the WASL and rewrite the law that requires high school students to pass the reading and writing sections in order to graduate.
On the other side, legislators, business leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire insisted students must be rigorously tested and pass the exam in order to get a diploma.
Both sides attended Dorn's news conference Wednesday.
"I think there will be a lot of happy parents, teachers and students," said PTA leader Julie Wright of Sammamish.
The state teachers union backs Dorn's plan and wants it to go further.
"We also firmly believe no single test should serve as a barrier to students graduating from high school," said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association.
A defender of the test said he is keeping an open mind as the changes described by Dorn evolve from concept to reality.
"We have not endorsed the plan," said Steve Mullin, president of Washington Roundtable, an association of top business executives.
His group wants to ensure students meet statewide standards in reading, writing, math and science, he said.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chairwoman of the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, said Dorn's ideas are "heading in the right direction" and mirror some findings of a panel that studied WASL reform this year.
She said changing the name is not the solution.
"I think changing the test to respond to learning needs is important," she said.
The WASL was introduced in 1997 and has become increasingly high-stakes since then. The class of 2008 was the first group of high school seniors required to pass the 10th-grade WASL tests or alternatives to the exam. Seventy-two seniors across Snohomish County met every other graduation requirement to receive a diploma except passing the state exam last spring.
That's a fraction compared with the number of seniors who won't graduate because they fell shy of academic credits.
Local education leaders say they are eager to learn the details of Dorn's changes to the exam, which is supposed to measure students' ability to think and apply reading, writing, math and science skills.
"With the WASL, you have to show your work and explain your work," said Marysville School District Superintendent Larry Nyland. "That's both the beauty and the knock on the current test."
"There is a lot we still don't know," said Mary Waggoner, a spokeswoman for the Everett School District.
Joe Willhoft, an assistant superintendent of instruction under Bergeson and Dorn, said the new exams will be rigorous and the results will be comparable to the old test.
Dorn insisted Wednesday that he has the power to make all the changes without the passing of new laws or approval by the Legislature and governor.
McAuliffe said Dorn is "at liberty" to rename the test, slim it down and move it to computers.
Should he wind up with a completely new test, legislators will need to review it to ensure it conforms to the federal No Child Left Behind law, she said.

Q&A on plans for new exams

Randy Dorn, the state's newly elected superintendent of public instruction, unveiled his plans Wednesday to replace statewide WASL exams. Here are answers to questions people might have.

Q: What will the new exam be called?A: There will be two tests: the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) in grades three through eight and the High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE).

Q: When will the new tests start?A: Spring 2010. Plans are to test high school students once each spring and to test in grades three through eight twice each school year, once in the fall and once in the spring starting with the 2010-11 school year.

Q: What will be different about these tests compared with the WASL? A: Dorn said the tests will be shorter, can be taken and scored on a computer, and results returned to students and teachers more quickly. Some long-answer questions will be dropped and fill-in-the-blank questions added.

Q: Does my son or daughter still need to pass the WASL or a WASL alternative to graduate?A: Yes, through this school year. After that, they will need to pass the HSPEs.

Q: How quickly will results from the computerized tests be returned to students, teachers and families?A: The goal is two weeks or less. That way teachers can assess a student's strengths and weaknesses and adjust the student's learning plan quicker. Currently, it takes several months for results of testing in elementary and middle schools and several weeks in high schools.

Q: How will the new testing system affect students in special education?A: Dorn said he will assemble a work group to study and to recommend changes to the Washington Alternate Assessment System and other alternatives assessments for special-needs students. For those students unable to test on a computer, a paper-and-pencil test will still be available.

Q: Will parents still know if their child has met or failed to meet state academic standards?A: Yes.

Q: Will the revamped exams meet requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law?A: Yes.

Story tags » LegislatureWASL

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