Washington student test scores inch upward, but testing opposition remains

East Olympia Elementary School third-grade students work on their math projects.
East Olympia Elementary School third-grade students work on their math projects. Staff file, 2013

Test scores released Tuesday by the state superintendent’s office show Washington students making incremental progress on the Smarter Balanced tests, which public schools throughout the state administered for the second time last spring.

Overall, student scores were up, in some cases by as much as three percentage points. Scores reflect the percentage of students in each category reaching proficiency on the test.

The state released scores for the Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math, as well as the science Measurements of Student Progress tests and the high school biology test.

Washington is the first state to release this year’s results from the Smarter Balanced tests, which also are administered by 16 other states.

The Smarter Balanced math and English assessments were given to students in grades three through eight and high school, and the science tests were taken by fifth- and eighth-graders. Students take the biology end-of-course exam, a graduation requirement for the class of 2017, whenever they complete biology class, typically in ninth or 10th grade.

High school students usually take the Smarter Balanced tests — aimed at measuring college and career readiness — in 11th grade but can take them early, in 10th grade. Students who meet or beat proficiency levels in 10th grade don’t need to re-test in 11th grade. Instead, their scores are rolled forward into the subsequent year’s 11th grade results.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn noted that the new Smarter Balanced tests are aiming higher than the old state tests did.

“The new scale is measuring every student’s college- and career-readiness,” he said, noting that the test emphasizes mostly college readiness skills.

State officials also noted that achievement gaps persist on the new Smarter Balanced tests, a longstanding trend reflected in other types of testing as well. As a group, white students, Asian students and multiracial students outperformed African American, Latino and other students in statewide results.

Smarter Balanced scores for high schoolers are lower than they might have been had more students participated. Assistant State Superintendent Robin Munson noted that some students refuse to take the tests. Their scores are counted as zeroes for the purposes of state accountability to the federal government.

Under the old No Child Left Behind act, states were required to test at least 95 percent of students. As concerns over testing grew, more parents began opting their students out of the tests.

More than half of Washington 11th graders in 2015, the first year of the Smarter Balanced test, skipped the tests, which weren’t required for high school graduation. The boycott lowered the state’s percentage of students tested below the 95-percent threshold. But no federal sanctions were imposed.

Instead, the state had to produce a plan for how it would increase participation. In 2016, Washington schools tested at least 97 percent of students in grade three through eight, but only 88 percent of high school students on the English test and only 61 percent on the math test. (Those rates include both newly tested 11th graders and students who took the 11th-grade test last year as 10th graders.)

Congress has passed a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA doesn’t carry a specific 95-percent mandate. But the U.S. Department of Education has proposed new regulations that would include one.

Most of those boycotting the tests are high school students. Last year, many 11th-graders didn’t take the Smarter Balanced tests because they were not required for graduation.

Dorn said controversy broke out last year over the Smarter Balanced tests, which are based on Common Core standards used by several states. Critics say Common Core standards are often confusing and too rigorous.

“Hopefully we have convinced people that the reason to do the assessments is to give quality information to teachers, student and parents,” he said. He said the old testing standards gave “false hope” to students who had the skills needed to graduate, but not necessarily those needed to succeed after high school. He said the new tests offer a more in-depth and clearer picture for students.

But anti-testing sentiment lingers.

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said that today’s statewide test score release reaffirms educators’ concerns over testing policies and laws.

“The state has gone to incredible expense to convert to Common Core Standards and the related (Smarter Balanced) exam,” she said in a news release.

Mead says the state should “stop using these scores to determine who can or can’t graduate, and start using them as they were intended — to identify which schools need more support and resources to help all kids succeed.”

Dorn said that if we expect teachers to move kids toward higher standards, we need to equip them to do so. The new standards and tests are often based on project-based learning, requiring students to solve complex problems.

“All of that will take more resources,” Dorn said.

Washington is one of only 14 states that will require students to pass math and language arts tests to graduate in 2017, according to the organization Fair Test.

The Washington thresholds for meeting graduation standards with Smarter Balanced tests — established by the state Board of Education — are slightly lower than the scores the state used to report Tuesday’s proficiency percentages. An example: Students are considered proficient on the Smarter Balanced English test with a score of 2,583 or higher. But they can meet Washington graduation requirements with a score of 2,548.

Students in the class of 2017 and beyond must meet standards in English, math and biology, which has a separate end-of-course assessment developed by Washington state and not connected to Smarter Balanced tests.

Fair Test and other activists are campaigning to reduce the number of required standardized exams and find better ways to assess learning.

Washington state does allow students to pass alternative tests, including tests developed for students with severe disabilities. Students can also go through a process known as the Collection of Evidence, which allows them to present class assignments and other work in place of the tests to demonstrate proficiency. They can also use scores from the SAT or ACT college tests; cut scores for those tests were set Monday by the state Board of Education.

Local scores

To see test scores from your district or school, go to and click on the State Report Card button.