Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Thoughts on the Math WASL

It isn’t that hard. God help me, it isn’t that hard.

This post might be more fun for you if you go over to and download the practice test. I’d come across it before when Terry Bergeson mentioned it at the Summer Institute last year, and thought it was nice of OSPI to communicate with the parents like that.

Since then, though, the news on the math WASL has been bad, bad, bad. Thousands of kids failed their first attempt, thousands more failed their second try over the summer, and two weeks ago Bergeson and Gregoire were able to agree with stunning rapidity that making it a graduation requirement would be delayed for at least three years.

So this weekend I sat down and took the test. Printed it off at the school, brought it home, and worked on it in between bouts with the baby. There are 42 questions on the practice test (15 open ended, 27 multiple choice), and on the multiple-choice questions I nailed 24 out of 27. Two of the ones I missed were just carelessness (on #14, for example, I figured out the probability for area I instead of area II, while on 22 I put them in order from greatest to least instead of vice-versa), and one problem I didn’t even really attempt (#30) can be gotten to with some logical deduction. I haven’t scored myself on the open-ended questions yet, but I feel pretty good about them too. Some of them are multiple-step (#13 especially would require some good work with the calculator), but when it comes to higher-order mathematics the most complex formula that I can see that you would need to use is the volume of a cylinder. Many of them are simple addition and multiplication.

That’s just my take, and thus the question has to be asked: why is this test so hard for so many kids? Here are some of the reasons that have been thrown out:

  1. Poor math standards. The Fordham Foundation blasted our math standards as being some of the worst in the nation. I can’t personally speak to what’s expected of our high school kids but I do know the elementary grade standards pretty well, and I think they’re fair. Further, I don’t think you can blame the standards for poor performance; that would most likely be a function of…
  2. Poor curriculum. I know that the state has done curriculum reviews for reading, but have they done the big research study on math curriculum yet? If so, are those programs getting used and getting to the schools that need them?
  3. Poor teaching in the elementary grades that leads to a cumulative deficit by the time they get to high school. After all, K-6 is seven years, 7-10 is only four years. I think this reasoning is crap, mainly because I teach in the elementary grades and I’ve seen the incredible things that they do in 6th grade at my school.
  4. Poor teaching in the middle and high schools that doesn’t prepare the kids for the WASL in 10th grade. I can hear the hackles rising around the state, because the math teachers have been dumped on more than any other teachers in the state. Part of this is because you don’t have “reading” teachers per se in the secondary grades, so the math teachers have been the ones most closely identified with a specific WASL test. I have trouble with this because I believe in the math teachers I know, but it also has to be acknowledged that there are teachers out there who aren’t doing what they need to do.
  5. Poor effort from the kids. Perhaps we’re getting somewhere now. Accountability sucks, but I’ve never heard such sturm und drang as I have about the math WASL. The part that really grates on me is that Bergeson has gotten us the money for the remedial classes, has been talking about this requirement coming down for years now, has been telling people that they need to be ready and has been giving them the resources, and apparently the kids (and their parents) didn’t listen. That’s not a failure of the system, that’s a failure of the consumer.

So where do we stand? I think that the alternatives Bergeson proposed last summer are so weak as to be meaningless, with the exception of using the SAT or ACT to substitute for the WASL. Comparing the grades of one student to others doesn’t really say a whole lot about the student being compared. Similarly, I can’t agree with using report card grades because grade inflation happens, as does the Gentleman’s C. I’m sad that this has been made to be solely the teachers’ fault, and I don’t really know what this three-year delay does. Are the kids going to finally accept responsibility in 2011 in a way that they haven’t up to this point? Is the curriculum going to make the strides that it must in such a short period of time? Is there some magic training that has been denied to our teachers up to this point that they’ll get now?

In short, the nattering nabobs have won a round, and I think we’re poorer as a state for it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like a fair summary of the situation to me.

I would add to the anecdotal explanations of the problem:

Sluggish recognition of the elements the WASL measures. As the explanation goes, educators, administrators and curriculum committees have been slow to align their practices to the EALRs (no, schools don’t teach to the WASL, the WASL measures the EALRs/GLEs). Sometimes the story goes that high school math educators are stubbornly continuing to teach what they learned decades ago. Other times it is because the curriculum selection is based upon factors other than alignment to the EALRs. Sometimes the story concludes that administrators knew all along that the reforms would fizzle as so many do and they have simply ignored the hard work of bending the school practices to getting kids to the standards.

Oh, and you are right. The math WASL cutscore expects about 7th grade skills
( see chart 16 on page 32).

And glad you like the ACT/SAT alternative. Nothing gets around the “we didn’t teach what the WASL measures” argument like a more standard test. It also addresses the “traditional” versus “integrated” math conflict. And it should demonstrate whether there is a problem with the test or the learning.


3:56 PM  
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5:15 AM  

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