"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Downward definition

After reading twice the Monday Gregoire/Bergeson press release on the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning – WASL – and considering its history, the chain of realistic conclusions seems clear.

The WASL was intended as a measure of how well students in the upper grades of Washington public schools are learning certain core subjects. So what do you do if the WASL doesn’t indicate what you want it to? Try teaching to the WASL – take time away from general learning so that students can do better on the test. (There’s been no lack of reportage about that tendency around the state, and even of students driven to WASL-induced stress illness over their test-taking.) And if that still doesn’t work? Change the standards, which is what the Gregoire/Bergeson “temporary alternative” to WASL math standards, to be proposed to the legislature next session, is essentially about.

State education agencies have reported “progress” on reading and writing test scores, but ongoing “diffuculty” in the math sections. That has led to protests, and elected officials – notably, officials who will be on the ballot in less than two years – have responded. Specifically: “Governor Gregoire and Superintendent Bergeson are proposing that students who have not passed the high school WASL continue to take rigorous math classes until they graduate or pass the test. Taking the test or an approved alternative would be required annually. The option of allowing students to graduate without passing the math WASL would remain in place for three years – for the graduating classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010.”

As to where that’s leading, consider the logic in this quote from Governor Chris Gregoire: “I want to let students and parents know that we are listening to their concerns and we believe this plan promotes math skills without penalizing responsible, hard-working students and teachers.” But – that formulation logically suggests – letting slide the irresponsible, indolent students and teachers.

There is in all this a clue for the legislature, which is that it might profitably begin peering outside the WASL box in consideration of a superior mousetrap.

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