Washington state students just finished their WASL testing week, and now students, parents, teachers, and school administrators will await the results. Don't expect dramatic changes.
In Washington state, the WASL is a great experiment - a different sort of test that designed to assess applied and critical thinking, and problem solving - all good things, the problem is, the state is scrambling, because this test doesn't seem to be testing the way most students have learned.
The situation is dire: only 32% Washington state students passed the Math section of the WASL (needed for a high school diploma in 2010), and for African-American students, the pass rate has only been 16%.
So what is going on here? And what are these test questions that two-thirds of high school students are failing?
OSPI released one-third of WASL test questions, to give students, teachers, and parents a look at what the WASL is (some cynics thinking a ninth-inning effort to improve scores), but the types of questions are somewhat surprising. Here's one:
The question is: How many spheres will balance one cube?
Apparently only 41% of 10th graders got this one right. It's a little funny isn't it? Not exactly technically hard in the sense of trying to remember formula you crammed in your head in high school, but not a 'cinch' either. We provided our solution in the next post. The funny thing was, we gave the question to our dyscalculic 10 year old (math facts memory problems), and he solved it pretty easily. It doesn't require math facts or multiple calculation steps. It just requires reasoning and problem solving. Hmmm. Maybe that's why all the excitement over this new test.
There are 'good' things in this WASL (there are bad things too - especially for LD students - but we'll tackle that another day), among them: the requirement to reframe data, to translate between words, numbers, and pictoral representations, to critique data or methods, to select essential features, to prioritize strategies for solving problems, thinking logically, and convert real world examples into mathematical equations.
The task before Washington state schools is not an easy one. Problem-solving is an excellent focus for education, it just seems like students and teachers have to make up a lot of ground. And the deadlines for graduation are coming up fast.
Because this post is getting long, we'll try and tackle some of the nuts and bolts and roadblocks to the solving of problems in the near future. We think problem solving instruction should consider individual learning strengths and preferences, and students (and teachers) should be given the opportunity to learn how they prefer or don't prefer to solve problems. In our practice, we have seen that many people with very strong learning styles have special difficulty learning to solve problems different ways. Problem solving is not like rote memorization. If the WASL is really to be the test to beat, then a very different style of instruction needs to come to the classroom.
Taking the WASL
OSPI WASL Site
10th Grade Sample Questions pdf file