Washington State Needs to Reconsider the Role of the WASL

School is out for the summer. For others, school is out for much longer than that. And not those who have graduated and are moving on to bigger and better things. For many high school students in Washington State, they are dropping out of school at rates that we should all be alarmed at.

According to a recent article reported by The News Tribune, the Tacoma area’s largest daily newspaper, Washington students have a 24 percent dropout rate. That means nearly one out of every four students will not see high school graduation anytime in the near future. That means they will continue to struggle to find sustainable jobs and careers that will keep them productive for the rest of their lives.

Things weren’t always like this. There was once a time when hardly anyone dropped out of school. A recent report by the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center found that the U.S. high school graduation rate is 69.2 percent. That is actually an improvement compared to statistics reported in 1996, where the graduation rate was 66.4 percent. If things are improving, there is still plenty of room to go up.

The catastrophic disaster that is our public school system should not come to a surprise to anyone. Conservatives have complained for years that public education is doing nothing but corrupting our children and not teaching them well enough for the real world. Liberals argue that the system is broken, not obsolete. Anyone who has actually attended the public schools know that anyone can get a good education there if they want to. I went to the public schools all my life and I turned out fine.

But not everyone has turned out so well. If nearly one quarter of students are dropping out before the twelfth grade, does this mean that our schools are hurting our children, or our children are hurting themselves? Parents play a very important role in raising children. If kids are not getting help from mom or dad or a guardian, who will help them?

President Obama made this past Fathers Day an opportunity to speak on the importance of fatherhood and being an active participant in a child’s life. He talked about his own father, Barack Obama Sr., who left his family when he was young. The President made sure he communicated to fathers and parents everywhere that we do our children a disservice when we ignore their needs. It was a message that certain people needed to hear.

But other than that, what else is to blame for the poor performance of our students? Let’s take a moment to look at the contentious issue of standardized testing. To many educators and students alike, the words “standardized testing” has become a curse word of the highest order. Students not performing well on standardized tests means less federal funding. It means your school is inadequate. It means children are being left behind. No one wants that.

Washington State has the WASL, which stands for Washington Assessment of Student Learning. When I was in fourth grade, my class was considered one of the early guinea pigs of the WASL system. Fourth graders like me during the 1996-1997 school year were tested on math, reading, and writing. If we passed, we were given a pat on the back and maybe a high-five. Today, tenth graders taking the WASL have slightly different stakes at hand.

If they do not pass all the sections of the WASL satisfactorily, they will not receive their high school diploma. Only after passing all the sections will they be able to graduate. Controversy has broken out because African, Latino, Native American and lower income students were disproportionately failing the WASL compared to their Caucasian and Asian counterparts. While achievement gaps are not a rare occurrence in schools, when graduation depends on it, there is reason to be concerned.

There is also controversy whether or not developmentally disabled students have to pass the WASL as well. As it stands, students with learning disabilities have to take the test. I am not sure about the latest developments regarding the WASL, but a lot of anger has poured out over the years just because of one little exam. This is not a small matter.

It seems fair to say that too much emphasis has been put on the WASL to assess whether our children are really learning. Former President Bush thought it was a good idea to create standardized testing as a way to inspire teachers and students to return America to its once former academic glory. There was once a time when the United States had the best public school system in the world. That is not true anymore by a long shot. Kids in Asia and Europe are achieving math and science scores that are making businesspeople nervous. If standardized testing is supposed to make us stronger, then we’d better hurry up and improve before the rest of the world surpasses us.

The WASL was originally meant to assess student learning, which is part of its name. It was not intended to be a benchmark for deciding who gets to graduate and who doesn’t. Like Affirmative Action, standardized testing has become the only solution to solve our problems, not one of the solutions. In an ideal world, teachers would have more freedom to teach their students the curriculum that they believe is right. When I was going to high school, teachers fretted about inspiring students to perform well on the WASL. Were they inspiring us to learn period? Not really. Just do well on a test. There is something not right about this.

It seems the culture of learning has disappeared from our country. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired the U.S. to advance its teachings of science to kids. Since then, America became one of the best places to educate a child. During the late 90s and the inception of the 21st century, that has dramatically changed. This needs to be fixed.

But standardized testing will not do it alone. I have nothing against tests like the WASL, but when the government thinks it will solve all our problems, they are dead wrong. Students need a reason to go to school. Hopefully the election of an African American president will inspire at least some kids to work harder in school in hope of achieving something great in their lives. But the real responsibility falls upon the parents. They need to stop letting the television and Internet raise their children. They need to be the parents, not the media.

Hopefully if Washington State starts to downplay the importance of the WASL and give teachers and administrators more freedom to teach their students the way they feel is appropriate, progress will be made. If failing the WASL means no diploma, it is no mystery why 24 percent of students are dropping out of high school. They need to be encouraged, not discouraged by one little failure.

Learning is something that cannot always be quantified. Passing a test does not automatically mean you are ready for college or working in the real world. Passing a test means you can pass a test. Learning means you have retained information that will help you later in life and that you know how to apply that knowledge when the opportunity presents itself.

I’m sure our state government will learn better. After all, they are not immune to making mistakes themselves. And as the old saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And our lawmakers need to try again and reconsider what role the WASL should really play in our classrooms.

But for now, enjoy your summer.

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One Comment on “Washington State Needs to Reconsider the Role of the WASL”

  1. Kenneth M Says:

    “Things weren’t always like this. There was once a time when hardly anyone dropped out of school. A recent report by the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center found that the U.S. high school graduation rate is 69.2 percent. That is actually an improvement compared to statistics reported in 1996, where the graduation rate was 66.4 percent.”

    You make the claim things used to be better, but then you use statistics from well over a decade ago that proves they were worse. I read it and it seemed a little contradictory.

    Good writing otherwise, just keeping the math straight!

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