State test scores released

Education: Mixed results in first year of new exams

September 1, 2010 

Students in South Sound and throughout Washington turned in a mixed performance on the new state tests they took last spring, with scores down in three key areas for fifth-graders and 10th-graders, but up in three subjects for seventh- and eighth-graders.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn released results of the tests Tuesday.

Dorn speculated they could have varied widely this year because of the introduction of new tests, or because some testing was done online for the first time.

The tests hold the highest stakes for high school sophomores, whose scores were down in reading, math and writing but up in science.

“We have more work to do in math and science,” said Peter Rex, spokesman for the Olympia School District. But, Rex said, district administrators were very pleased about progress in a handful of areas, including middle school math.

North Thurston Public Schools demographics closely match those of the state, giving the district something to compare its results to, said spokeswoman Courtney Shrieve.

“Overall, we’re still above or equal to the state in almost everything,” she said. But, she said, “eighth- and 10th-grade math continue to be a huge challenge.”

North Thurston schools saw strong gains in elementary school scores, Schrieve said, and administrators hope those gains continue into future middle- and secondary-level scores.

Chris Korsmo, director of the statewide League of Education Voters, worries about some of the statewide decreases.

“Tenth grade matters,” she said, noting that state tests help determine if a student graduates from high school.

Across Washington, fifth-grade scores showed some of the biggest losses, with drops in every content area including nearly 11 percentage points in science, a category in which every other tested grade level improved.

Chris Barron, a spokesman for Dorn’s office, said the big decline in fifth-grade scores is “hard to explain.”

“We don’t know what happened,” he said. “It’s a transition year, and reading a lot into it might be difficult until we get more trend numbers.”

He said new math standards tested at the elementary school level might have tripped up some students. State officials also heard complaints from school districts and teachers that the reading tests were too long for students to complete in the one day allotted to them.

Both eighth-graders and high school students registered healthy gains in science.

Joe Willhoft, assistant state superintendent for assessment and student information, said there are only “hunches and hypotheses” about why. He said removal of long-form test questions this year might have allowed more students to complete the test.

“We found when we looked at the results in high school that there were fewer blanks,” he said. “More students were working to the end of the test.”

The state tests also are used to gauge how well students are faring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law measures the progress made year over year in state testing and sets improvement goals that schools and school districts must achieve annually.

The federal law measures what it calls adequate yearly progress. Preliminary results from 2010 show that 968 Washington schools did not meet AYP. That’s a decrease of 317 schools from 2009, state education officials said Tuesday.

For school districts, 212 of the state’s 295 districts did not make AYP. That’s an increase of three districts from last year.

State testing changed dramatically last year.

The state abandoned the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which had been in place since 1997, and replaced it with two new tests. The Measurements of Student Progress tests students in grades three through eight, while the High School Proficiency Exam is for 10th-graders.

The new tests were designed to measure concepts similar to those on the WASL. But the new tests are shorter and require fewer long-form answers.

“We drew from the same bank of test items we have been using for years,” Willhoft said.

Dorn, who ran for office in 2008 on a platform of WASL reform, made the changes in response to educator concerns that state testing was taking up too much instructional time. Reading, math and science tests were shortened to one-day tests, while writing remained a two-day test.

“I acknowledge that the reading tests were too long,” Dorn said. He assured teachers that next spring’s reading tests will be pared.

Some teachers were concerned that testing on one day instead of two might be too much pressure for students, said Suzanne Hall, executive director of student learning for the Tumwater School District. But teachers liked that the test was later in the year, giving them more time for instruction, Hall said.

Tumwater educators have put a lot of time into aligning curriculum with the tests, Hall said.

“We are very thrilled with the results,” she said, because for the first time the district saw significant gains from low-income and special education students.

Also, previously scores have declined after fifth grade, Hall said, but this test cycle showed a narrower gap in the upper-grade results.

In spring 2011, the state will add grades four and five to online testing in reading and math, and grades five and eight in science.

Korsmo, of the League of Education Voters, said schools haven’t responded to drifting test scores in any meaningful way.

Offering incentives for teachers who take on tougher assignments, as well as providing additional support for those teachers and their principals, are among her suggestions.

Dorn said he has mixed feelings over the mixed test results. But he said he’s proud that schools seem to be holding ground in an era of shrinking resources.

He warned legislators that further education funding cuts could affect scores even more in the future.

“We can’t keep relying on federal bailouts, which we did for the last two years,” he said. “We need the state to recommit to education.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@

Jerre Redecker: 360-754-5422

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