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Monday, April 26, 2004

Here We Go A-Wasl-ing

It's that time of year again: the students in Washington State schools walk through their disrupted school days with the burden of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning on their shoulders. Dire warnings follow them about the need to pass the test and the importance of making their school look good. Every student must pass, but fifty percent will fail.

No, it isn't a failure on the part of the schools that causes this fifty percent failure rate; the failure rate is built in. Only the top half of tests pass.

I find it ironic that while the state is requiring that half of all students fail, and half of all schools fail, at the local level they are still engaging the "self esteem movement" methods. My daughter's school has an awards ceremony every month, where three different students from each class get awards each time... a different three students. And that isn't even counting the perfect attendance awards that are granted not annually but monthly. The awards are geared, essentially, toward ensuring that almost every student be told, at least once in the year, that he is the best.

Both extremes are wrong. To say that every student is the best waters down the honor of genuine accomplishment and recognition; yet to require half of all students to fail sets an impossible standard for those who struggle in school. It seems logical, even obvious, that any contest in which everyone wins doesn't measure much, and any test in which half fail is an indictment on the whole system (in this case, the WASL system).

As a parent of gifted children, I object to both measurements. I don't want to see my kids automatically win, because it takes away the incentive to try. I don't want them rewarded, either, for their intelligence. They did not work for that, and can't take much credit. I want to see them work for acknowledgement, in areas that require effort. To me, a perfect attendance award or an A in homework means a lot more than a "You're Smart" certificate.

I also don't want to see other kids required to fail simply because my kids were born fortunate. If the test were objective, it would be much fairer; but regardless of how objective the WASL promoters claim it is, if children's success is only judged competitively, by how they measure against other children, it isn't objective. The "smart" kids are going to fill the passing percentile ranks, and the kids who struggle are going to get beaten down again and again. I don't think it's fair that hard working kids who are learning should be penalized simply because tests come easier to my kids.

Finally, I think it very short-sighted that we make so much rest upon a single test. It practically ensures that schools will "teach the test," which has multiple harmful results. It means that they are spending more time learning how to test and less time learning how to think. It means that they are spending more time learning the specific types of information teachers expect to see on the test, and omitting other equally necessary information not likely to appear on the test. It implies that only information tested by the WASL matters, and that the writers of the WASL are all-wise and never err in educational judgment.

It also homogenizes learning. Robert Frost said "The best things and best people rise out of their separateness; I'm against a homogenized society because I want the cream to rise." If we really believe in the uniqueness of the gifts of each child (as the self esteem movement would have us see), then we should allow children to explore divergent paths of learning. The more we gauge their learning by monolithic tests, and use those tests alone to judge them and their schools, the more we reduce their opportunity to learn independently. Children who must "learn the test" do not have time to learn things like research and logic sufficiently, because those things require independent exploration, and take away from time spent learning the specific topics covered on the test.

The result is that those who are gifted in one area but poor in another will spend a lot of time trying to overcome their difficulty in the area of challenge and very little time developing their giftedness. It means we wind up with a lot of competent students, but fewer and fewer who ever develop their potential for giftedness.

Those schools that have trouble passing the WASL, and those parents whose students perform poorly on the test, will undoubtedly complain that the test is not fair; and undoubtedly, their cries will be ignored as so many sour grapes. So let me go on record, as a parent of gifted children, with my criticism. My children will ace the tests; but I still know that the test still isn't wise. We should be encouraging success, not requiring failure.