SOUNDOFF: WASL’s valuable, but there’s more

Whatever else might be said about Washington Assessment of Student Learning testing and the celebration or mortification over WASL results, one thing is certain: WASL is here to stay. And we need to learn as a community how to best use it to the benefit of our children.

So far, WASL has been mostly good news for Oak Harbor. Of 55 pass-fail requirements placed on the district this year, we have met or exceeded each one. Every school and every grade level met statewide standards, an accomplishment that will get tougher each year as the bar is continually raised.

WASL and the No Child Left Behind Act have everyone’s attention as students and schools are put to the test each year. But, that’s only half the story of our schools. Let’s be clear what WASL is and what it isn’t.

First, while WASL provides important information about student skills in reading, writing, and math, WASL doesn’t tell us everything our kids are learning. It tells us nothing about their knowledge and abilities in social studies, music, drama, art, physical education, or their ability to think on their feet and present an oral report. It tells us nothing about character and citizenship and the job we’re doing molding future leaders.

Listen to a concert from our high school jazz band, watch our business students compete at nationals, or attend class when your child is presenting a report on early American exploration and it’s clear that our pride in students’ accomplishments goes far beyond a score in WASL.

Until recently, the test didn’t even tell us about student abilities in science and technology, a field on which our future depends and where most jobs will be found.

Another thing WASL is not? It is nothing like the tests we took as children. WASL is tougher, smarter, and more comprehensive than the old 0 Iowa or CAT tests we grew up with, requiring not only that our children read, write, and do basic math, but to also understand the reasoning behind every answer. Memorization will not lead to better WASL results. Comprehension and reasoning are required.

WASL is at its best in showing us whether our teaching techniques are getting through to our students. A boost or a reduction in numbers, especially if it shows a trend over two or three years, is a good indication whether we are heading in the right or wrong direction.

When the trends are good, such as occurred in our middle schools this year or at Hillcrest Elementary, then we’ll look at what we did and intensify those efforts district-wide. When trends are troubling — this year’s writing scores at many schools went down — we want to find out why and make any necessary corrections.

WASL works best as a gauge of progress, an early warning system to detect if we’re slipping behind in any way, and a motivator to continually strive for better results. In that sense it is a good report card for the district and the community.

Remember, for our students, learning has been a lifelong process that reflects on all of us: parents, teachers, community leaders, and, of course, the students themselves. Every year of learning is built on the foundation of previous years. In that sense, when a student fails, we all fail; when students achieve, we all feel a sense of pride.

The district’s thoughtful mission statement is: “A caring community educating every child for success.” Starting with the Class of 2008, that mission statement will be seriously tested.

When this year’s freshman class takes its WASL tests as sophomores, the stakes for them and all of us are much higher. Every student must pass the WASL reading and math tests to receive a diploma in 2008.

That’s why the school board set its mission implausibly high. Educating every child for success means every single student in the Oak Harbor School District. As uncomfortable as that may make us, there can be no lesser goal.

Dr. Rick Schulte is superintendent of the Oak Harbor School District.

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