State’s schools testing better

New math exams are part of encouraging spring 2011 results

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More data

• See local scores online at http://columbian.com/datacenter/school_ratings_2011

• For a review of Washington’s testing and graduation rules, and discussion of the 2011 results: http://k12.wa.us/Communications/PressReleases2011/StateTestResults.aspx (see “More information” box on far right)

Scores from new math exams administered to Washington high school students in spring 2011 are highly encouraging statewide and locally, but the state’s school chief isn’t ready to declare success.

At least three years of data are needed for an accurate assessment of new end-of-course exams launched this year, he warned.

Still, state Superintendent Randy Dorn couldn’t help applaud results for the Measurements of Student Progress for grades 3-8, the High School Proficiency Exam, the new mathematics tests and even more refined high school graduation rates.

“Almost every (category) is improving and moving in the right direction,” Dorn said Tuesday at an Olympia press conference during which scores for all Washington students and subject areas were unveiled.

“I believe they’re learning better. I believe our quality of teaching is better,” Dorn said of students’ performance. Alignment between clearer learning standards and new exams also has improved. “This test isn’t easier. To me, the rigors are the same,” he said.

Most Clark County districts experienced similar success. Many saw 10th-grade math pass rates climb to the 60-70 percent range, often 20 points higher than one year ago.

At Battle Ground High School, a remarkable 93 percent of 10th-graders passed the state’s newly introduced geometry test.

The sophomores of 2011 must pass either the Algebra 1 or Geometry end-of-course (EOC) exams in order to graduate in 2013 in Washington.

(Note: Many school districts, including those in Southwest Washington, use Integrated I and Integrated II math curriculum that covers similar algebra and geometry material. Those students were given Integrated I and II EOC exams instead).

Starting with the class of 2015, Washington’s seniors must have passed both math tests to earn a diploma.

That’s why all eyes were on the EOC results. They far outpaced poor pass rates under the previous, all-encompassing math portion of the WASL and HSPE, which stalled at or below 50 percent:

• 66.2 percent of all students who took the Algebra/Integrated 1 EOC exam after completing the course passed, including 60.8 percent of 10th-graders.

• 73.8 percent of all students who took the Geometry/Integrated II EOC exam after completing the course passed, including 66.3 percent of 10th-graders.

That compares with the 41.6 percent of Washington’s 10th-graders who passed the math portion of the HSPE in 2010.

Locally, Evergreen district scores provide an equally striking example.

Evergreen 10th-graders passed the Integrated I math EOC exam at a 63.2 percent clip last spring. (They might have actually taken the class in seventh, eighth or ninth grade — the latter two grade levels much more the district norm.)

As for Integrated II, all 546 of Evergreen 10th-graders tested had just completed the course: 59.1 percent passed.

Roughly on average, then, 61 percent of Evergreen sophomore students passed math in 2011 — compared with just 40.1 percent of 10th-graders who took the comprehensive HSPE math portion one year earlier.

“That’s a huge leap. We have a better demonstration of what they’ve learned, when we test them on material they’ve just completed,” said Ted Feller, Evergreen’s director of secondary education who also oversees student assessment.

“I think it more accurately reflects where kids are at, and what they know,” Feller said. Still, he acknowledged there remain “bugs and kinks” in the EOCs to be ironed out. “It’s going to take us longer to digest it.”

Other state highlights

• Pass rates for 10th-grade reading and writing HSPE exams inched upward, or stayed level, meanwhile: 82.3 percent in reading, 86.0 percent in writing.

• Across grades 3-8 in all subjects, test scores mostly inched higher — including those on revamped science exams, for which Dorn again warned another few years are required to gauge their accuracy.

• Under new federal graduation rate measures that demand actual tracking of each high school student, rather than a formula-driven estimate, Washington’s performance has improved.

For 2009-10 (most recent data available), 72.7 percent of seniors graduated on time (under the state’s old model, 76.5 percent) — that’s up 1 percentage point from the prior year.

The extended graduation rate, which includes fifth-year seniors, et al., was 80.7 percent (82.6 percent under the old model).

“There’s almost one of five kids who doesn’t graduate, so it’s not time to celebrate yet,” Dorn said.

• Next spring, in 2012, 10th-graders also will take a new biology EOC exam, which will later be added as a diploma requirement.

The news wasn’t all uplifting.

There remains a chronic, roughly 30 percentage-point “opportunity gap” that separates ethnic groups’ testing results, Alan Burke, the deputy state school superintendent, explained. There was a slight improvement in Latino students’ scores, but not for other groups.

“It is a persistent, pervasive problem that we have not found the answer for, yet,” Burke said.

Favors online tests

Yet Dorn mostly sounded a positive tone. He praised teachers’ hard work in boosting state achievement even during an era of serious budget setbacks.

Dorn also said reforms he has instituted — shortening by half the long testing period under the old WASL, to about one week each spring; switching to the EOC math exams; and, phasing in online testing at hundreds of Washington schools — offer improved measures, less student “testing fatigue” and more-secure test results, with fewer paper exams that can be tampered with (witness scandals in other states).

A survey showed 82 percent of Washington students who took their tests online in 2011 prefer that option, he said.

Since students’ lives, let alone their studies, will be conducted largely online, it’s prudent to convert all Washington schools to online testing, he urged. He plans to introduce state legislation to prod, then require, districts to switch, he said.

“We need to listen to the ones taking the test,” Dorn said. “Parents should ask: Why isn’t my school (using online tests)?”

‘Failing’ marks?

Again on Tuesday, Dorn cautioned against over-reaction to federal No Child Left Behind Act measures that now show 64 percent of Washington schools failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress marks.

Those 1,388 schools set a dubious new state high, largely because the pre-set cutoff point on pass rates for 10th-grade reading jumped from 74.3 percent to 87.2 percent this year, Dorn noted.

The next stair-step increase, to a hypothetical 100 percent pass rate for all students, as mandated by the decade-old law, is due in 2014: “When 100 percent of our schools will be ‘failing,’” Dorn said.

(Washington won a one-year grace period to bypass a similar jump in the math cutoff rate; federal law doesn’t cover writing or science exams.)

Dorn urged that members of Congress to “do their job” to recast NCLB into a “growth bill,” instead of a “punishment bill” that contains harsh penalties, he said. “This is not the time to beat up on people,” he said, especially in an era of heavy school budget cuts.

The Obama Administration has signaled intentions to lift penalties for states who install favored education reforms — such as stronger teacher performance measures — but, “I don’t know if we’re committed to doing some things in there,” Dorn said.

Meanwhile, “Parents don’t believe their elementary school is a failing school,” he said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.