State tests can help schools, kids do better

By SCOTT MURPHY

There has been a lot of discussion — and some confusion — about the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and its role in our state’s school improvement effort. It is not surprising that the WASL, with its scores that were publicly reported this fall, has provoked intense focus — and sometimes anxiety. But if the WASL is used as it was intended, to help improve instruction and student learning, it can be a very powerful tool for schools.

The WASL helps schools, parents and community members measure how well their students are doing in meeting the state’s new academic standards. These standards were largely created by Washington educators and represent what we want our kids to know and be able to do by the time they graduate. A set of assessments in fourth, seventh and 10th grades show us how successful we have been in achieving these goals, as well as showing areas where we need to target additional time and resources.

To help schools’ identify key strategies for improvement, Partnership for Learning — a non-profit coalition of businesses — commissioned a research report that looked into how some schools have made significant gains on the WASL despite what are often deemed challenging demographics. Hillcrest Elementary School in the Lake Stevens School District was one of the schools featured in this research report, "Making Standards Work."

Our school has an unusually large economically disadvantaged population, with half of the students eligible for free or reduced lunches. But despite the challenges this implies, we’ve been able to raise scores significantly over the past three years — 21 percentage points in reading, 23 points in math and 31 points in writing between 1998 and 2000. While there have been dips in individual subjects between some years, we’ve been able to use the scores to identify the challenges facing specific groups of students and target our resources to overcoming those challenges.

Key to our success is how we have reacted to the information that we get from the WASL. We choose not to treat it as a judgment but as helpful information a school community can use to make important improvements in teaching and learning. When we get the data back, we sit down as a staff and look at our strengths and weaknesses. We use the information to figure out where we need to go from here and what we need to do to help make improvements in student learning.

For example, I had a teacher come to me because her students were not making the progress in math that she had hoped. She wanted to talk about how she could help her students meet higher levels of achievement. We sat down and created a plan for improvement. That’s the kind of proactive thinking that the WASL encourages.

This type of analysis has also led to specific changes in our teaching methods. For example, in writing, we have begun to regularly take students through the whole process of writing a piece from brainstorming to publishing. We have worked with students on what steps to go through to solve math problems, so that they can better explain how they arrived at their answer. And in reading, we recognized from our initial scores that students were having problems with non-fiction comprehension, so we created a strategy for developing our students’ skills in this area.

In addition, we worked diligently across grade levels — involving all of the staff. There is no way you can pack all the learning needed to do well on the WASL into one grade. All the grades have their jobs to do: kindergarten through fifth grade. And all of the teachers know and understand what role they play in this larger effort.

The WASL is an important measure, but we look at a variety of factors before deciding if we’re meeting with success. Looking at specific groups of students —their mobility, demographics, absenteeism and other characteristics — tells us a lot about our school, students and families. But in the end, we all must be accountable for student learning. And the WASL is key to this accountability.

At Hillcrest, we’ve seen how the WASL and the state standards can be used to improve student learning. We’ve taken on the challenge and received community support in return. There’s a long way to go. But as long as we believe that student learning can continuously improve and we use the WASL as it was intended, our children will continue to benefit.

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