Letter: Racist test question on WASL (Washington State) shows why tests need to be public

March 21, 2007


Below I’ve tried to combine two writings we put together here in Washington. The first is an account of one question from the recent WASL test in Washington State. The second is our political protest. As you can see, this is just another reason why all tests need to be public.

Juanita Doyon, Director, Parent Empowerment Network

Here is our press release and other material regarding the racist WASL reading and question:

Item One, PEN Press Release:


After receiving a distressed plea for intervention, from a parent and student, Parent Empowerment Network took steps to confirm the accuracy of the complaint and the contents of the student’s email (see item 1, below). PEN then hand delivered a letter to the Governor (see item 2, below), at 10:40 a.m., March 20, 2007.

“My organization acted in a responsible manner. We contacted the governor requesting immediate action. The seriousness of the situation at hand and the harm being caused to students and families by this culturally insensitive test item warranted immediate action that we felt only the governor could take," said Juanita Doyon, Director of PEN. "The parent who contacted me was extremely upset. We were both convinced that, upon hearing about this item, the governor would be sufficiently concerned about its impact on Latino students that she would set aside other priorities and take immediate action to rectify this egregious mistake or error in judgment. Controversial WASL items have been identified in the past (e.g., Mary Kay Letourneau math item) and have been dealt with expeditiously.”

At 10:30 a.m., March 21, 2007, since no communication had been received from the Governor or her staff, PEN placed a call to the governor’s office to determine the status of the request for action. PEN’s further request for a response by close of business, March 21, 2007, went unheeded.

Item: Email received from student:

Hello. I am a tenth grader who is taking the state mandated Washington Assessment of Student Learning WASL). During the first part of the reading portion, I had to read a story and reply on it. The story I had to read was extremely offensive. So much in fact I did not start the test for around ten minutes due to frustration. True the story was written by a Hispanic about a sample from his life, but there is no reason for stories such as this to be on a test.

The story went along as the following... A boy named Panchito was working with his “Papa” and brother on a berry farm. Panchito and his brother earned .85 cents an hour while his “Papa” earned a dollar for “hard work”. Also, Panchito’s brother was a janitor from Monday - Friday. Panchito had just learned the word skirmish and had an idea. He picked up a rotten strawberry and threw it at his brother. After some more picking, Panchito’s brother hit him back with a strawberry. Suddenly, the brothers ran back to their house to clean their now stained work shirts.

Fearing the anger of their “Papa”, the brothers change and clean their house. "This was mainly due to the fact that ‘Ito,’ a white employer, was coming with their paychecks." When Ito arrived with their checks, the family was gathered together. Both “Papa” and Ito sat down and Ito gave “Papa” his sixty five dollar check for a month of work, along with two checks for the brothers. Afterward, Panchito’s mother offered Ito taquitos. Ito, in a fake white-imitating-a-hispanic accent, replies, “Gracias.”

Then as Ito talks about the food he had just recieved, Panchito asks, "Don Miguel loved Mama’s taquitos too, did you know Don Miguel?" Ito replies, "Yes, he worked for me for a couple of years, but he had it coming to him getting deported to Mexico.’ Ito and Panchito’s family say their farewells and the story ended."

This story bothered me in multiple ways. For starters, I too am a Hispanic, of Mexican descent, to be precise. This story goes too far in Hispanic stereotypes. The fact that the story, in summary talks about how Mexicans are strawberry pickers that will work for practically free is extremely offensive, but to place this content in a state test is unbelievable.

Many of the thousands taking this test will have the idea of Mexicans all working for nothing and being deported for no plain reason. Upon completing this so called “assessment”, my friends had all snickered at me and razzed me about the content of the racist mexi-story. How our state can allow content like that in a test is nothing short of vile, discriminating, demeaning, degrading, and horrid. This needs to stop. I know that I am not the only only one offended by this, but many people are too afraid to come forward about this information, because of the fear of having their WASL disqualified and failed, all events that will happen if any student leaks anything about this test. In short this needs to be stopped, before more discriminatory stories are placed in tests, and engraved in my generation’s heads. Hispanics are far more than “berry-pickers” and “janitors”. I work very hard and I am in many advanced classes. I am offended.

Thanks for your time, ‘A’

Item 3, PEN Letter to the Governor:

March 20, 2007

Dear Governor Gregoire:

Yesterday, the first day of the 10th grade WASL Reading test, I received the attached email from a young man who wishes to remain anonymous. He has given permission to share his email, saying ‘It is fine as long as my name is not leaked out. That would be disastrous for me! I really want to graduate and not cause my action here to do any harm to my family, friends, teachers, and I.’

As you see in the contents of the email, students are threatened with test failure should they divulge test content. In addition, this young man does not want to be the victim of further peer ridicule.

At any rate, I am confident that you will be able to confirm the alleged contents of the test through an official and immediate administrative request to OSPI Assessment Department. Should your investigation verify the existence of this item: Placement of an item of this nature on a statewide, high-stakes test not only reflects poor judgment but amounts to social and emotional sabotage, causing instability and disruption of the testing process for Hispanic students, and calls into question any scores rendered from this test. On behalf of this student and his parent who have sought our assistance, in light of the extremely poor judgment on the part of OSPI and/or the testing contractor, Parent Empowerment Network demands that this item be removed from the test, regardless of whether it is a scored item or a “pilot” item. The person responsible for placing this item on the test must be at the least reprimanded or, preferably, dismissed!

You may recall a previous WASL math test issue concerning a question with a possible response resembling the name Mary Kay Letourneau. Governor, that past item pails in comparison to this current item. The inclusion of this item creates far more serious damage. It captures a regressive stereotype of Hispanic citizens and negatively impacts an entire ethnic group of Washington students. It also brushes with the politically charged issue of immigration. High school students experience enough exposure to stereotyping of minorities in the media, among themselves, and in the general adult public. For the state test to perpetuate ethnic and racial stereotypes verges on ignorance and is certainly unconscionable!

In order to satisfy the parent and student who contacted me and satisfy my organization’s concerns for the entire Hispanic community, it is imperative that you immediately confirm the existence of this alleged WASL item and take action to rectify this situation. I am sure you realize the potential embarrassment for the state and negative ramifications a story like this will have if it is released to the Hispanic community at large before corrective action is taken.

I realize that OSPI is the agency of contact for this issue. However, this current WASL predicament is added to a litany of unresolved test issues perpetuated by the manner of test construction wrought at the hands of OSPI. Past experiences have convinced me that OSPI is unable or unwilling to act in a timely manner unless forced to do so by legal means or higher authority.


Juanita Doyon, Director, Parent Empowerment Network


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