Closer scrutiny of WASL highlights successes, failures

School administrators are quick to point out that pass/no-pass results of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not always show the full picture of public education.

The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction also releases a four-level breakdown showing where students fared on the WASL. Students scoring on Levels 1 and 2 did not meet standard, 1 being the students with the very lowest scores, well below standard, and 2 being somewhat below standard, but approaching a passing grade.

Students on Levels 3 and 4 met standard, with 3 being at (and somewhat above) standard, and 4 exceeding the standard.

Last school year, when South Kitsap High School Principal Jerry Holsten gave the yearly progress report to the school board, he showed that over the last several years, fewer and fewer students are falling into Level 1, which he said shows some progress.

Those students, though not passing, are still getting higher scores.

This year, the overall results showed lower scores for most grades — seventh-graders, by exception, had higher scores in nearly all categories — but closer examination of the 2006-07 WASL shows where the district had more success, and where it regressed.

The data is informative, and important in determining what the results of the test mean, but SKSD Director of Instructional Services Dan Whitford said it takes the schools some time to analyze the numbers and figure out the trends in the scores, especially in the past two years, now that every grade from third to eighth are tested.

“With so many numbers, with so many grade levels, it takes a long time to find out how we’re doing,” Whitford said.

Though the district had an ongoing trend of lowering the number of Level 1 students, this year there was a spike in the three core tests — reading, writing and math — for almost every grade level.

More students in most grade levels scored in the lowest level, except 10th graders who gained ground in the writing test, dropping the number of students on Level 1 by 12.9 percent.

“I really attribute that to a lot of kids just not trying,” Whitford said, explaining that many tests had blank or incomplete sections.

By contrast, more students passing the test made it into Level 4 in the writing and math portions of the test.

Tenth graders saw a drop of 16.85 percent in those making it to Level 4 in reading, but saw increases on the other subjects — the largest, 6.9 percent, in the historically difficult math portion.

“More and more kids are getting to Level 4 than ever have,” Whitford said.

One difficult aspect of the WASL is comparing one year’s grade to the same grade from the previous year. Test takers on one year’s fourth grade test are different students entirely than the previous year’s fourth grade test takers.

Looking at the same students from the same graduating class — such as last year’s fourth graders and this year’s fifth graders — show some unusual declines. As Whitford pointed out, it’s unlikely that the students became less able to take the test in a year, and he wonders if the test itself could cause variation from year to year.

For example, students may receive a reading prompt that is more interesting to them one year, increasing retention.

But the data analysis is an ongoing process for the schools, and SKHS Instructional Specialist Quinn Nelson said success will happen in the classroom working with individual students, and reminds parents that the WASL is not the end-all of education.

“I think it’s important to realize this is one test,” Nelson said. “It’s a broad-brush stroke.”

Whitford agreed. The real improvement will occur in the classroom.

“If an organization is going to improve, it has to improve at the smallest unit.”

Next issue: The numbers are out, now what? See Wednesday’s issue to find out where the district is going next, and learn about its ambitious goal to raise the rate of passing 10th graders by 20 percentage points in the math portion of the WASL.

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