Problem Solving & the WASL - Should We Be Loving It?

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
10th Grade Sample Questions pdf file


  1. Now wait a minute!

    "... because this test doesn't seem to be testing the way most students have learned."

    What good would a critical thinking test be if it just tested something the way people had learned it? I would think the whole idea would be to see how people could context shift and well think critically :)

    As a related (but only slightly) note. You might be interested in

    It is an amazing site dedicated to Math education for those who are interested (and generally talented) in math. Its focused on math competitions, but their rather inexpensive classes could be taken for any reason.

  2. WA mom9:46 AM

    The more I read about what is being asked on the WASL the more I like this battery of tests.

    Nina Shapiro (in the linked article) didn't know "the fact that light from the sun reflects off the moon and travels to Earth, that night clouds act like a blanket to hold in the day's heat, and the disadvantages of solar energy compared to fossil fuel" ? And she thinks none of these come up in her daily life? What about environmental and energy policies, which she, as a citizen and voter takes part in overseeing?

  3. There are definitely good things about this test, but important questions are: is it so good that it should be the gatekeeper to a high school diploma in Washington state and is it developmentally appropriate considering what we know about the gradual acquisition of cognitive abilities into adulthood?

  4. p.s. We missed Rob's post by accident - yes, the Art of Problem Solving site has nice articles are references. Thanks for the link!

  5. Anonymous5:08 AM

    I'm happy and relieved to say I solved the balance problem in 5 mins. I've always hated math but this should be easy peasy for 10th graders who are doing these kind of problems regularly (I haven't attempted these in 18 years)... if that was the toughest question it must not be a very tough test at all.