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School test results tell only part of the story this year as state moves to new assessment

Pierce County parents searching for the latest state math and reading test results from their child’s school may come up empty-handed this year.

In what has become a back-to-school ritual, state education officials on Wednesday released results from tests that were administered last spring.

Overall, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said students’ scores were “holding steady.” Statewide average scores in reading, math, writing and science show a similar number of up arrows and down arrows in 2014 compared to last year.

But the state is in a transition year between tests, making it difficult to draw many year-to-year comparisons. For instance, the 2014 results in reading and math apply to only about two-thirds of Washington students.

The other third — including students in 12 of the 15 districts in Pierce County — participated in field-testing a new assessment known as the Smarter Balanced test. That exam, which reflects new rigorous standards adopted by Washington and many other states, will be given to students in every school district in the spring of 2015.

“Next year, we will start with a new slate,” Dorn said.

For the 2014 field testing, the state chose to not post reading and math results. State Deputy Superintendent Gil Mendoza explained that the purpose of the field tests was essentially to “test the test” and its reliability, not to measure annual student progress.

The only 2014 results posted are those from the old-style state tests: the Measures of Student Progress (MSP) for students in grades three through eight (including writing and science in selected grades); the High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE) in reading and writing; and the End-of-Course (EOC) tests for high school students in math and biology.

School districts were able to opt in or out of the Smarter Balanced field test last spring. They were not required to administer both the old and new tests.

“I didn’t want to ‘double test’ kids,” Dorn said. He said the state was able to negotiate that option with the U.S. Department of Education.

Officials in the Tacoma School District, for example, chose to stick with the old test in 2014. Patrick Cummings, director of research and evaluation for Tacoma Public Schools, said the district decided there was value in tracking year-to-year progress on state tests for one last year.

But in Puyallup, most students in grades three through eight took the Smarter Balanced test. The only exceptions were at Spinning and Firgrove elementary schools — two of the district’s most struggling schools, where officials wanted comparison data. So the Puyallup numbers reported on the state website reflect testing among only a few hundred elementary school students from those two schools, rather than the thousands in the entire district.

“We put a lot of resources into those schools,” said Glenn Malone, who oversees testing in the Puyallup School District.

Those resources paid off, with MSP scores rising — sometimes dramatically — in most categories at both Spinning and Firgrove.

Statewide results for students in grades three through eight who took the MSP test were mixed.

In Tacoma, Cummings said MSP scores mostly mirrored statewide trends in terms of movement up and down. But as in past years, Tacoma students started further behind statewide averages and even with the posted increases, they were still playing catch-up with state averages.

High school students take a High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) in reading and writing. High school students also take what are known as end-of-course exams in math — usually either algebra or geometry — and in biology.

More than 90 percent of 12th graders in the Class of 2014 passed all the state tests required for graduation.

Dorn talked about how he is bracing for big changes — and potentially lower scores — when the move to the new Smarter Balanced tests arrives in spring 2015.

That test will be based on a set of standards known as the Common Core State Standards. They have been adopted by most states — with pushback from opponents —in an attempt to ensure that kids learn the same essential concepts, at the same grade level, no matter where in the country they live.

Dorn predicted that when Smarter Balanced test results are reported next year, “there probably will be an adjustment, a downtick.” That is because Common Core standards aim higher than current state standards and the Smarter Balanced test is considered more difficult than current state tests.

This spring, students will take the new Smarter Balanced test in math and English language arts.

Fifth and eighth graders will continue to take the old MSP in science. State writing tests won’t be given in 2015.

High school students will continue to be held to the same graduation requirements, meaning they must pass an end-of-course test in either algebra or geometry, as well as in biology. Some districts, like Tacoma, have had students who pass the algebra test also take the geometry test. But Puyallup allowed students who passed the algebra EOC to skip the geometry EOC. Only a small number of Puyallup high school students took the second math test.

Writing tests for high school students will also go by the wayside in 2015.

But the new addition will be Smarter Balanced tests in math and language arts for high school juniors. Those tests won’t count for graduation.

Instead, Dorn said, they are intended to become a sort of gateway for whether students are prepared for college or careers when they graduate.

He said he hopes most universities and community colleges will look at those scores to help determine entrance requirements.

“Smarter Balanced is not about basic skills,” Dorn said. “It’s about higher-level thinking skills.”

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