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Education reporter put to the WASL test

Paul Balcerak, education writer for the CK Reporter, works through the math questions on a practice version of the 10th-grade Washington State Assessment of Student Learning. - Jesse Beals/Staff photo
Paul Balcerak, education writer for the CK Reporter, works through the math questions on a practice version of the 10th-grade Washington State Assessment of Student Learning.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff photo

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

I don’t know if this will come as any consolation to Central Kitsap School District students heading off to take the Washington State Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) next week, but there’s at least one “grown-up” who was recently completely stressed out and frazzled by it: me.

Hi, I’m the journalist who’s been wearing a dunce cap around the office since getting trounced by a practice version of the 10th-grade WASL math test earlier this week.

Allow me to explain.

There seems to be a growing, vocal contingent of Washington state citizens who absolutely hate the WASL. Google the term “WASL” and you’ll get back a few hundred thousand neutral results, peppered with pages like, “Mothers Against WASL,” “Why the WASL sucks” and “WASL WASL WASL WASL, Awful! Awful! Awful! Awful!”

News archive searches offer similarly damning results.

In an effort to see what all the fuss was about and measure an “average guy’s” ability to succeed on the WASL, I recently took the WASL math and reading sections. The mission wasn’t to debunk the WASL or question itslegitimacy; rather, I just wanted to see if I was smarter than a 10th-grader and try to experience what that 10th-grader might when he or she heads off to school Monday.

The verdict? I was stressed, flustered, annoyed, flummoxed and any other number of colorful adjectives to describe the fact that I wished I had come up with another story idea.

That’s just me, though, and I talked to plenty of students in the district who described similar or completely opposite feelings while I was compiling research for this story.

Again, this isn’t an opinion on the WASL — technically as an education reporter, I’m not allowed to have one. It is, however, an exploration of students’ fears and gripes about a controversial, state-mandated graduation requirement.

Credentials

I’m 24 years old and less than a year removed from college. I have a high school diploma from a private school — meaning I never had to take any form of the WASL — and a degree from a state university. The last math class I took was during my sophomore year of college, the 2003-04 school year.

I’m admittedly pretty awful at math and always have been. I can do the basics: balance my checkbook, fill out my tax returns and (sort of) calculate sales tax in my head. Anything beyond basic algebra may as well be quantum physics.

My reading credentials ought to speak for themselves. I majored in journalism and excelled in English classes throughout my student career. My job involves a heavy amount of reading and writing.

The tests

I tested in both 10th-grade reading and math.

The rules

I was given one hour and 20 minutes for each test. I took no breaks and was inside a closed room where my only resources were two No. 2 pencils, a calculator for the first math section and my wits. Fellow staff writer Rachel Brant supervised my time and made sure I wasn’t cheating.

Scoring

WASL scoring can be difficult to explain and some of it is fairly subjective. Generally speaking, multiple choice questions were worth 1 point and written responses ranged from 1 to 4 points. Because written responses didn’t come with pre-determined answer keys, I was forced to score them myself — yes, we’re going by the honor system — based on the WASL’s guidelines. This wasn’t an exact science, as official WASL scorers use higher-scoring students’ responses as “anchors” to set the standard for acceptable answers.

Scores should be reflected as a general picture of how I performed and they are completely unofficial.

Test time

Because I was basically administering the tests to myself, I opted to take the math test first and get the worst part over with. Students in CKSD will be taking the reading and writing portions of the WASL next week and math and science the third week of April.

I was on edge about the test leading up to the date I had set to take it, but that seemed to be a common feeling.

“I think it’s good to know where we stand, but I’m nervous,” Olympic High School sophomore Keinan Paulino said.

I found the multiple choice items to be fairly easy; if they weren’t, I could at least venture a guess and move on. The word problems were what really tripped me up. Some were simple, but most were either completely baffling to me or were too time-consuming to justify trying to complete.

Question 13, for example, asked me to pretend that I was a general contractor and needed to give an estimate to a customer on the cost of building a concrete staircase.

“Perfect!” I thought. “A question that combines required math skills with real life applications.”

The rub was, my materials included concrete, wood (to form a square that the steps could be molded into) and the cost of smoothing the surface of the concrete. Of course, each of these items was reflected in the sense of dollars per square foot and ... well, as long as my explanation is, the WASL’s was longer. If I had 10 minutes to kill, I could have figured out the work order, but it was only Question 13. I had less than an hour and 20 minutes at this point and a total of 42 questions to answer.

So I got that one wrong.

My overall problem with the math section was simple time management. My math skills aren’t horrible — like I said before, I can use math for essential life skills — but I tend to work slowly. My brain just isn’t built for math.

That’s another commonality among students in the state. Just a little more than 50 percent of sophomores passed the math WASL statewide last year and only 54 percent of CKSD sophomores pulled it off. (This according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s “WASL Report Card,” available online).

Then again, some people’s brains are wired for math.

“I was two classes below what I was supposed to be and I passed the math WASL with ease (when I took it two years ago),” Olympic senior Jeff Forrest said.

My strength was always English class, which makes sense because the nation’s highest-paying jobs are in math and science and God hates me.

It was no surprise to me, then, when I danced through the reading section and scored only 4 points below perfect. (Again, though, by my own scoring).

This matched up fairly well with statewide and CKSD performances on the sophomore test. About 81 percent of students in the state at least met the reading standard, while more than 85 percent of CKSD students did.

Despite the high scores, though, and seeming relative ease of the reading portion of the WASL, some students still find fault with the system.

“I think it’s kind of a waste of time in the classroom because you’re kind of learning to learn the WASL,” Olympic sophomore Elizabeth Polsin said.

Aftermath

Other than the pride-swallowing task of printing my WASL results for the whole world to see, I’ve suffered no ill effects from my failures as a mathematician. Real life students, however, have a lot more to lose — WASL math failure means a retake of the test, lest the student be barred from graduation.

Whether the test is good or bad is completely subjective and probably doesn’t matter.

What does matter are the numbers, and if they’re telling the truth there’s a huge chunk of Washington state — and Central Kitsap — students who will be going through what I did multiple times.

The results are in

My WASL scores are noted in bold for the tests I took on March 5 and are followed by the WASL “achievement standards” for each test:

Math score: 26

Level 1, “Well Below Standard”: 0 to 23

Level 2, “Below Standard”: 24 to 34

Level 3, “Meets Standard”: 35 to 49

Level 4, “Exceeds Standard”: 50 to 65

Reading score: 48

Level 1, “Well Below Standard”: 0 to 19

Level 2, “Below Standard”: 20 to 26

Level 3, “Meets Standard”: 27 to 34

Level 4, “Exceeds Standard”: 35 to 52

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