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WASL experience better than expected

In the midst of all the controversy that has surrounded the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) each spring since its implementation in the late 1990s, fourth grade Opstad Elementary School student Natalie Korssjoen had a quiet revelation.

While writing furiously at her desk this week and last, she realized that despite the worry she felt about the test beforehand, the test itself was not as hard as she thought it would be.

"I think it's actually pretty easy," she said. "It's fun. It's got different stuff to do, like when we had to write a story."

A month before the test, Natalie's parents said that she had become so consumed with anxiety about her first time taking the state-required test that she walked around saying "I can't be social for the next two weeks."

"The closer the WASL test has come, Natalie has even gone as far as saying that all of her attention needs to be spent on the WASL, and she's so social, for her to say that is a huge impact," said Natalie's mother, Julie.

"I actually feel sorry for my sister because she has to take it and I don't usually do that," said Natalie's younger sister Dana, a first grade student who is not looking forward to taking the WASL in two years because of what she has seen Natalie go through.

However, Dana did note that one benefit was that because Natalie has been so focused, they haven't had time to fight about anything.

Natalie, who is in Opstad's Highly Capable program, said that she began preparing a month ago, trying to organize study sessions with her friends, doing puzzles and getting herself psyched up for the test.

She likens herself to the Hermione, the brainy magic school student from the "Harry Potter" series.

"I was expecting the WASL to be sort of like the 'NEWT' test from Harry Potter," she said.

In other words, she expected the test to be very hard.

Now she says that the most difficult part is coming home and answering the question of "How did you do?"

"I haven't been as stressed," Natalie said about how things have changed since before and after she began the test.

Natalie's fourth grade friend Melanie Templin, who also attends Opstad, just moved with her family to Washington state from California. She said that she doesn't understand why the WASL gets so much attention.

"It's just like doing the whole school year really fast," she said about the experience. "It's no big deal."

Teachers try to make it a positive experience, said Opstad principal John Jester.

To help prepare students, Opstad held parent information meetings with students who had already taken the WASL.

During the two weeks of testing, the school schedule changes to accommodate the testing. Students typically take the test in the morning and participate in regular classroom activities in the afternoon.

Some students are allowed to chew gum only during testing, others may munch on snacks, some bring "study-buddy" stuffed animals and parent volunteers are often seen in the classroom with goodies.

"We have a very realistic attitude about it," Jester noted. "We're practicing all year long through teaching. If we're teaching [to state standards] then we're teaching to the WASL."

The WASL is a state-level required assessment of student learning in reading, writing, math and science. It's goal is to measure how well students master - and schools teach state learning requirements. The untimed test, required for third-through-eighth grade and tenth grade, is a mixture of short-answer and multiple-choice questions, as well as extended responses, essays and problem-solving tasks.

It also gives the schools context for their strengths and areas of growth, which is then reported to the state. Natalie, who participated in a pilot WASL test for third-graders last year, said that even though she had some prior familiarity, her concerns beforehand were still valid.

"It think it was a big deal because it's a big test and everybody talks about it," she said.

Her father Sherwood agreed.

"My sense of this is that it's more than an educational event, it's a social event," he said. "Kids talk about it on the way home. My sense of where Natalie was is that it was more than in her mind, it's visceral. It's in her belly. It's bigger than an intellectual event, it's greater than that. It's caught her because she wants to perform well."

Next year, Natalie said that she will not be as nervous. Her advice to those taking the test is to be prepared with a pencil soft gripper to keep from having sore hands.

"I could see how stressed she was and now that she's in it, it's kind of like the bubble popped," Sherwood said. "I tell her, 'It's not going to change my mind about you, how you do on that test today. I want you to do what you do and not be concerned beyond that.'"

The WASL test results for each school will be released in September.

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