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Teachers union unites against test

"Peter Szalai is speaking out for the 322 teacher-members of Oak Harbor Education Association, a teachers' union. Szali and the group recently voted to take an active and vocal stand against the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the WASL as it has become commonly known.No one test should judge or label a child, said Szalai, who heads up the union. No one test should dictate what is taught and learned. There is more to public education than the WASL.The introduction to the Washington Superintendent of Public Schools' Reaching Higher guide to help parents understand the WASL, describes the controversial test with catch phrases like:* Higher expectations.* Clear and challenging academic standards.* Ensuring students are learning more in school.* Receiving a good education.WASL is an achievement test administered to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders at every public school in the state, a requirement beginning this spring. The state superintendent's booklet states that the WASL will raise standards and put in place a statewide accountability system, making individual schools responsible for raising the proficiency of students. Statewide, while teachers' unions said they can support accountability that calls for increasing the quality of education received by the children of Washington, they are resisting the administering of the WASL. To improve student learning, we need to look fully and seriously at the entire challenge. Focusing only on testing and test results oversimplifies the complexities of raising the widest range of student achievement in a modern, pluralistic society, said Peter Szalai, co-president of Oak Harbor Education Association teachers' union. To improve student learning, we need to look fully and seriously at the entire challenge. Focusing only on testing and test results oversimplifies the complexities of raising the widest range of student achievement in a modern, pluralistic society.Oak Harbor Education Association supports the Washington Education Association's official position on educational accountability, which calls for multiple measures, small class sizes, staff development, sufficient resources, parental support and professional compensation. Oak Harbor Education Association has further joined the Seattle Education Association in its call for the state legislature to suspend the use of the WASL until concerns are rectified.The teachers are concerned that the WASL will not accurately measure student achievement and capabilities, and should not be the sole tool used for measuring student success.Teachers have also expressed concern over the content of the test itself, saying that the material presented on the test may be too advanced, particularly for fourth-graders, and that the test will be setting students up for failure. Dot Newberry, a fourth-grade teacher at Clover Valley Elementary, said the test is more a measurement of cognitive abilities than actual material the students have learned. The WASL differs from standardized achievement tests in that it measures how children apply what they have learned, which is a skill for which fourth-graders' minds are not yet ready, Newberry said.A similar concern is addressed at the seventh-grade level. Amber Sundown-Schwartz, a seventh grade core teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School, said the writing portion of the WASL is unfair to the students. Core curriculum includes language arts, reading and geography. The kids are given two 60-minute periods over two days. They do not know the topic when they sit down, and they must sit in a silent room and complete the essay without any interaction, Sundown-Schwartz said. I don't think most adults would produce their best writing under these circumstances.Sundown-Schwartz said she doesn't think this testing method is developmentally appropriate for 12 and 13 year olds, and we may set them up for failure.The stakes might become even higher at the 10th-grade level. The state plans to require proficiency on the 10th-grade test for high school graduation with a Certificate of Mastery. Fifth-graders this year will be the first class that will need to score within the proficiency range on the WASL in 10th grade to graduate with the special diploma if the test is deemed valid and reliable, said Cherise Berner, Oak Harbor School District curriculum director, Those not demonstrating proficiency would only be given a general diploma, which would be based on their attendance at school and the class grades received.We are creating something here that we have no idea how this will be received in the outside world, said Jan Racicky, an Oak Harbor High School math teacher. Racicky said it is not clear how a general diploma will be considered by colleges and employers, if it will affect a graduate's ability to get accepted at colleges or to compete for employment.A tool used to assess student learning should not be the bottom line for graduation, Racicky said.Racicky also expressed concerns about the content and context of the WASL. She said if adults were to take the math portion of the 10th grade WASL with the same time constraints and the same pressures as the students, I doubt very many would pass.Newberry, Sundown-Schwartz and Racicky all agree that teachers are unable to use the results of WASL to help improve students' abilities.They take the test in April and the results come out in September or October, too late to improve if necessary, Racicky said, since the students would already be into the next school year.Berner agrees that WASL differs from other standardized achievement tests in that it requires that students are able to demonstrate that they can apply what they have learned.This is where we're going in terms of what they'll need to do in the 21st century, Berner said. And, she said, basing curriculum on WASL is OK.We want them to apply what they have learned, she said.Berner said she understands the teachers' concerns.Teachers like teaching, Berner said. Large-scale assessments are intrusive on instructional time and they don't give teachers a lot of feedback, she said.However, Berner said the development of WASL had relied heavily on teacher involvement and comments. Teachers throughout the state have been highly involved in setting benchmarks and developing standards, she said.Berner said it is her belief that the reason teachers are so upset now is that there is only one teacher out of the 12 or 13 people on the accountability commission. The accountability commission is the body that determines the consequences or rewards a school receives based on WASL performance. It is made up of one teacher and the rest are business people and community members.This is where the rewards, penalties and sanctions come from, said Berner. Teachers had been highly involved in the development of WASL, Berner said, and now they have been brushed aside, their voice minimized.Next Saturday: How do adults measure up when taking WASL?You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611 "

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