Donald C. Orlich

Adjunct Professor

Science Mathematics Engineering Education Center

Washington State University

Pullman, Washington 99164-4237






     The Washington State Legislature charged the Commission on Student Learning with developing an assessment system to measure student achievement in grades four, seven and ten.  This paper reviews only the distributed Example Test Grade 4.  Thus, all comments relate to that version of the state-mandated assessment, since the actual tests are confidential and kept secure.  My assumption is that the actual assessment instruments are highly correlated to the examples in length, content, scope and difficulty. 


Reading, Writing and listening

     The bulk of the Grade Four reading, writing, and listening assessment test items appear to be developmentally appropriate; albeit, somewhat challenging for typical fourth graders.  The majority of test questions require knowledge and comprehension of listening, reading and writing skills.  Approximately 20 percent of the items require the use of higher level thinking skills such as analysis, identifying abstract relationships, synthesizing new information or writing a judgement about some character or situation in a story.

     Thus, I predict that between 60 and 65 percent of the fourth grade students taking the text will score satisfactorily.

But a significant number of fourth graders, approximately 35 to 40 percent will do rather poorly due to the high level of analytic skills needed to complete the listening and writing assessment items.  

     My predictions are based on the number of test items that require formal levels of thinking, that is, can children understand logic and can they separate form from content.  At grade four, virtually no students are thinking at the formal level.


     The fourth grade mathematics test had 45 items.  Using two different sets of criteria by which to classify the test items (Bloom’s Taxonomy and the National Assessment of Educational Progress Proficiency Scale), between 30 and 37 percent of the test items appear to be appropriate for children who are 10 or 11 years old.  Contrarily, between 60 and 70 percent of the mathematics test items are clearly beyond the mental capacity of fourth graders.  In general terms that means that about one-third of the math test items could be classified as using knowledge, comprehending the information or solving a problem.  Those would be appropriate test items for grade four.  However, at least two-thirds of the mathematics test items require higher level thinking skills such as analysis, identifying abstract relationships, establishing criteria by which to judge, or solving a unique problem.  Again, these sets of problems require

the application of formal reasoning skills similar to those discussed previously.  Fourth graders do not have adequate cognitive skills to understand and solve these problems.

     Thus, I predict that approximately 65 percent of the fourth grade children will fail the test in no uncertain terms.

     How can I be so confident about the predictions?  The evidence comes from the best tests used in the United States of America--The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As reported in the NAEP 1992 study The 1990 Science Report Card,

only one percent (that is correct:  O-N-E percent) of all the fourth grade children in the USA who took the science test could answer questions posed at the level requiring analytic thinking.  Zero percent of the fourth graders (that’s Z-E-R-O) could answer the highest levels of test questions that required children to establish criteria or to make logical judgements; that is, formal reasoning.

     Back to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test given to fourth graders.  In the mathematics test, two-thirds of the test items are classified as belonging to the highest levels of thinking as already noted.  The NAEP test items are of parallel difficulty to those asked in the WASL.

At the national level, if no children or only one percent of the children could answer questions of that difficulty, how can the children of Washington be expected to do any better?  Answer:  They won’t!


The fourth grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning has a reading, writing, and listening component that is rather

challenging, and yet reasonably difficult.  At least one-fourth of the children are predicted to fail due to the somewhat higher proportions of formal reasoning skills needed to pass it.

The majority of fourth graders should pass the test, that is, reach the arbitrary standard set by the state.

     The language arts aspects of the WASL could provide some feedback to fifth grade teachers who can then stress the technical skills needed to improve overall language proficiency.  Used as a diagnostic tool, children can benefit from focused instruction on writing and listening skills.

     Clearly, the fourth grade WASL mathematics test is developmentally inappropriate.  The difficulty level of at least two-thirds of the test items is beyond the mental capacity of most fourth graders in Washington State, or any other state.  No amount of teacher help or parental coaching can improve student achievement on this test.  The children of this age are not mentally developed to process the kinds of higher reasoning skills needed to be successful.  There is nothing wrong with the fourth graders.  They are simply children:  Not simple children!

There is everything wrong with the fourth grade WASL mathematics test!

     To paraphrase from the current state superintendent of public instruction, “we are raising the bar.”  Dick Fosbury could set the high jump standard at seven feet and clear it in one try.  The math bar is set even higher for Washington fourth graders.  Guess how many will clear it--on any number of tries?

     I predict that NO fourth grader in this state will get a perfect score on the WASL.  (Do recall it is possible for a high school student to get a perfect score on the SAT.)  Further, I predict that only about one percent of the fourth graders will have scores in the 90th  percent level on this test.

     The WASL sets no standard.  This is an outrageous assault on the children, their teachers and their parents.  If there is

A message in the bottle it reads, “You fourth graders are dummies.”  Isn’t that a great test to encourage kids to succeed in school?  You bet!

     What is more disconcerting to me is that knowledgeable professionals know that the NAEP tests have shown the aptitudes of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders.  Why did the state superintendent and the Commission on Student Learning completely ignore or disregard these results?

     I conclude that the fourth grade WASL is actually a sixth grade aptitude test.  More importantly, the Washington State Legislature should demand a verification of the validity of the WASL. 

The fourth grade mathematics assessment is unreasonable by any criteria.   


     The WASL has a yet an undisclosed moral dimension.  Is it moral to use the police powers of the state to coerce all fourth grade children to experience a test that has little chance of being passed?  How moral is it to watch children and teachers spending between eight and 20 days to prepare for and administer the WASL?

     An ethical issue addresses the hopeless feelings of parents who try to tutor their children night after night, not being informed by state school authorities that their kids do not have the cerebral connections at this stage of their young lives to think at the higher cognitive levels.  Give these youngsters two or three more years to develop and the vast majority of them will begin to think analytically.  Growth and maturation processes coupled with positive school learning experiences help children to evolve cognitively. 

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning is        ill-conceived, unreasonable and a degrading attack on children.

     There are several other implications that must be addressed in order to stop this travesty against kids. 

·        Why was such a difficult and developmentally inappropriate assessment instrument ever released when early field trials showed flaws?

·        What political agenda is being served by knowingly administering a test that clearly is not in reach of the vast majority of fourth graders?

·        Why is the state legislature continuing to expend tax dollars on a reform system that predictably is showing adverse effects on children?

·        Why haven’t other professional groups analyzed the appropriateness of these tests, for example the Washington Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers?

·        What is the state trying to prove by continuing to use a test that borders on adult irresponsibility and exploitation of youth?

The fourth graders can’t fight back!   



May 18, 1999