What’s wrong with teaching students “to the test” on the math WASL? Nothing – so long as the standards behind the WASL are the right standards.
Unfortunately, they aren’t.
Doubts about Washington’s standards have long festered. This year, amid mounting evidence that the math WASL was deeply flawed, the state Board of Education launched an independent review of its foundations: “grade level expectations” and “essential academic learning requirements.”
These GLEs and EALRs, as they are called, were developed over a period of years by the state superintendent of public instruction’s office. Their deficiencies reflect directly on the stewardship of the superintendent, Terry Bergeson.
The first part of that review – done by six master teachers and mathematicians – is now finished. It’s alarming.
The panel compared Washington’s written standards to those of California, Massachusetts, Indiana, Singapore and Finland, all recognized as among the world’s best. The comparison is not flattering.
Stacked up against California and the others, Washington’s overall standards got the lowest score in every category the reviewers considered: depth, grade-to-grade coherence, measurability, accessibility and balance.
Regarding the depth of those standards, for example: “Numerous topics are missing, and many of the topics that are included are underdeveloped.”
Measurability: “The content is often vaguely defined . . .”
Balance: Washington “underemphasizes mathematical content and algorithms.”
Algorithms? That’s a fancy term for reliable problem-solving techniques. Those have been given short shrift in Washington’s math standards, despite being essential for success.
“Algorithms are tools,” the report says, “yet nowhere are students asked to memorize their addition and multiplication facts (also a tool) or use standard algorithms with fluency and efficiency.”
The missing algorithms reflect an educational philosophy – popular until recently – that de-emphasized exercises and memorization in favor of “investigation” and understanding of mathematical concepts.
The panel did applaud Washington for emphasizing conceptual understanding. But it noted that a failure to also stress algorithms “cripples” students: “Applying conceptual understanding in high-level mathematics without algorithms is impossible.”
And while critics of the WASL typically complain about how tough it is, the reviewers actually found that Washington demands far too little from its students.
Fractions, for example, are introduced here in the fourth grade; Singapore and California introduce them in the second. Washington expects its second-graders to add and subtract numbers up to 18 in the second grade. Singapore expects its second-graders to add and subtract to 1,000.
Quadratic equations, essential to algebra, don’t become part of the grade- level expectations until the junior year of high school. Some other states are teaching them in the eighth grade.
Deficiencies in standards cut right to the heart of math instruction. The GLEs and EALRs drive the WASL, school district math curriculums and classroom lessons designed to meet those standards. “Changes in the standards will set in motion changes to the entire system,” the reviewers noted.
The class of 2008 – the first to face the WASL as a graduation requirement – has performed well on the exam’s reading and writing sections: 87.5 percent of these students have passed both. On the whole, Washington’s seniors were giving their best.
Yet their rate of success in math was much lower: 67 percent – and even that took a lot of retesting and remedial instruction. The debacle was so great that the 2007 Legislature was forced to suspend math as a graduation requirement.
If those WASL scores were grades, Bergeson and her office would get a “B-plus” in developing the reading and writing standards, but a “D” at best in math.
Of course it’s more complicated than that: The scores also reflect a shortage of skilled math teacher and students’ reluctance to take enough math courses. But when an independent, expert review finds so many things wrong in standards that have been under development since the early 1990s, something just doesn’t add up.
Read the report
Go online to www.sbe.wa.gov and click on “Washington State Mathematics Standards Review.”