Friday, September 3, 2004

Here We Come a WASL-ing

The results of the latest WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) scores are in, and while some scores are up moderately (but see below for more on that), the real numbers are pretty dismal.  (See full article from the Seattle Times.)  Only 38.8% of 10th grade students received “proficient” marks in all three subjects needed for graduation (Reading, Writing, and Math).  “Proficient” is a minimum of 61% correct.  Summarized further:
Less than 40% of students can get at least a D- grade in Reading, Writing, and Math.
The only thing to be cheerful about here is that the numbers are slightly less bad than they were last year.  (But they reduced the requirements for passing this year, so the touted increases and improvements are much smaller than they actually seem to be.)

(Why am I concerned about this, being a gay male who isn’t in the education field?  Rusty’s teenage daughter Sarah lives with us, and she goes to Cleveland High… which is perhaps the worst school in the entire state when it comes to WASL scores.  With the exception of some with “NA” scores, it’s the worst in this part of the state, with a whopping 3% pass rate.  That’s right: of 10th Graders at Cleveland, less than 1 in 30 could pass this test.  That gives me real qualms about the education system in Seattle in general, not just at Cleveland, since the education to pass a test like this has
to have started long before 10th grade.)

Now, you can lay out arguments about how the test — any standardized test — may be biased against some racial groups (or other minorities), or how some students simply do poorly on standardized tests, or how students learn in different ways and at different rates, or that the test doesn’t actually test what the students are learning.  And I would agree with you: to a certain degree, all those things are probably true.  They certainly contribute to some good and average students doing less well than their real potential, and some middling-poor students not being “proficient”.

But we’re talking that 60% of students on average fail this test.  (And 97% percent fail at Cleveland!  Ninety-fucking-seven percent!)  Not “lose a few percentage points,” but “get fewer than six out of every ten questions correct.”  That’s a lot bigger than can be explained by the test not being quite in synch with the students.

Three possibilities seem to be there:
  • The test is completely out of whack.  Frankly, I don’t buy this.  Somewhere along the line, adults have surely vetted this test to make sure it tests pertinent information.  (Of course, this assumes that what is deemed pertinent really is.  But I remember these sorts of tests: addition, subtraction, geometry, spelling, analogies, reading comprehension, synonyms, stuff like that.  The validity of testing these things has not changed in decades.)
  • The students are not being taught what the tests cover.  Given the flack in recent years about schools which teach explicitly and only what the test covers, in order to ensure that students pass it (other valuable teaching be damned), I also don’t buy this one as the One True Cause.  I went to school (K-12) in three different parts of this state, and I know that at least some of the schools (try to) teach the pertinent info.  (I never failed these tests.)
  • The students are what is out of whack.  Now this is what I expect is the case.  I can observe Sarah, and what I observe from her is confirmed by what I know from other kids (including one I heard on the radio discussing this subject): the students don’t care about this test, and in fact, some of them may even actively try to fail it.  (We believe Sarah did that when she took the Food Handler’s Test in June: quite easy for a kid as smart as she is, but since she was going home to Kentucky for the summer the next week, her incentive to pass this test was close to zero.  Why pass a test to get a job when you don’t need to get a job?  So we think she just blew off the questions intentionally.)  This is probably even more true with students at what are largely dead-end schools like Cleveland: how many kids from a school where 3% pass this test do you think plan to go on to college?  (To pull a number out of the air, how about 3%?  Meaning that perhaps zero students there who don't have post-high school education hopes are able to pass this test.  Zero!)  How many aspire to anything more than working at Safeway or driving a bus — unless it’s to be a sports star, a rap star, or a drug dealer?  How many even care if they graduate from high school at all?
Next year or the year after, passing the WASL will be required to graduate.  (Students can take it at least once each year, maybe more often.  It’s not a one shot, “blow it in 10th grade and you’re sunk” sort of thing.)  I’m sure this will boost improvement quite a bit — imagine, actually having to do something other than get a D- in all your required classes in order to graduate! — but it will also show us how many don’t care.  And it will probably be accompanied by even more lowering of standards, because the only thing worse than No Child Left Behind is keeping as much as 97% of your Senior Class another year, or two, or three.

No, I don’t have a solution for this.  I find it very hard to compare to myself, because I genuinely wanted to learn, and these kids — not just the ones at Cleveland, but almost every teen I have contact with — apparently don’t.  Sarah won’t read a book unless it’s required; according to her, she has “no imagination” and can’t get anything out of them.  Gee, do you think that’s because of a steady diet of television, movies, and crude hip hop music?  (“My neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack” [a song by Khia] is not appropriate lyrics for adults to listen to, much less teenagers.)  Overload the senses, dumb things down, and generate a culture of passivity where everything has to come to you, rather than you going to get it.  If it’s not both passive and excessive, the kids don’t want it.

I can’t blame the schools, unfortunately.  They do the best they can, but between students who don’t want to learn and a system which all but requires them to pass the kids just for showing up and won’t let them levy any sort of threats of dire consequences, what can they do?  They put the info out there, but the kids don’t sit down to eat.  I guess you have to blame the parents; I had really good ones, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  (You never do until you have the distance to appreciate them.)

It’s going to be really interesting to see what Sarah makes of herself in 5… 10… 20 years, much less some of the kids who are her peers.  Many of them have great talent — Kerizma sings, Kinsey makes jewelry, and so on — but they are so unfocused, unsupported, and untested that I fear it will be wasted.  Many of these kids live in the poor part of town and can’t even conceive of getting out; they don’t realize that there’s an out to get to.

If these are the future of our country, I’m very scared.

(Weblog Title Reference: From the Christmas carol “Here We Come A-wassailing”Wassail is a spiced holiday beverage given out to carolers.)

Updated on April 15, 2011

Six and a half years down the line, Sarah just turned 24.  She did graduate.  She married an illegal alien.  She has been on the cover of a marijuana magazine.  She has done some recording of hip hop music (but I don’t think anything has been released).  She has been tattooed on her neck.  She has worked as a stripper in Las Vegas (hello, Showgirls!).  She has been arrested for solicitation and other things.


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