Education

Washington kids beat low predictions on first round of new state tests

Results released Monday show Washington students beat educators’ expectations on new statewide tests.

Those expectations were low, however, because the new Smarter Balanced Assessment is considered harder than those that came before, dating back two decades when the WASL began the era of standardized testing.

The new test, field-tested in spring of 2014, is tied to the same Common Core standards used in many other states.

Even though kids who took the Smarter Balanced exams last spring scored better than those who field-tested it a year earlier, 2015 results still showed nearly half of Washington students didn’t meet the new standards.

In Tacoma, students were consistently 5 to 10 percentage points lower than the state average when measured across the seven grade levels that took the tests.

Even so, testing directors in several South Sound school districts said they were pleased. Local districts said their experiences mirrored state results.

“We are slightly below the state, but following state trends, which is historically where we tend to be,” said Patrick Cummings, director of research and evaluation for the Tacoma School District.

He cited relatively high student poverty and mobility rates as contributing factors to Tacoma’s historically lower scores.

Washington is one of the first states to release district results from the new, more rigorous tests based on the Common Core. Statewide, between 52 and 59 percent of students, depending on grade level, scored at the proficient level on the new tests in English language arts. In math, there was a much wider variance, with between 29 percent and 58 percent of students achieving proficiency.

The lowest levels in math proficiency occurred among 11th graders. More than half of them skipped the test altogether, which had an impact on results. Smarter Balanced test results weren’t a graduation requirement for 11th graders, so officials believe that may have contributed to high test refusal rates.

In both the Puyallup and Peninsula school districts, where students traditionally test at levels that exceed the state, 11th grade scores were down this year. Peninsula testing director Jennifer Dempewolf pointed out that among 11th graders who did take the test, 75 percent were proficient in English language arts and 52 percent in math. But state reports factor in scores of zero for the many who didn’t test, thus dragging reported scores considerably lower.

In the Bethel School District, assessment director Brian Loffer said students were off to a good start.

“When we compare it with our first foray into the WASL and national field tests, we are happy with our first start,” Loffer said.

He said Bethel students did particularly well in math — something he attributes to a new curriculum and greater math focus in the district. This year, the district will introduce new English language arts curriculum, and officials hope for improved results there as well.

The new English language arts test was a graduation requirement test for 10th graders. But in math, 10th graders took the older end-of-course assessments in algebra or geometry, which are needed to graduate.

Although state officials previously released statewide 10th grade scores, they did not post district-by-district results on the state Report Card website on Monday. (www.k12.wa.us/) Officials said that’s because 10th grade results are no longer used for federal accountability measures.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said he thinks the Smarter Balanced tests should be used to help measure students’ progress and get them the help they need, but that the exams shouldn’t be used as a graduation requirement.

He said the 2015 test results are “moving in the right direction.”

Dorn said it was “raw, hard work” by teachers and students that allowed students to perform as well as they did on the most advanced tests Washington students have ever taken.

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