Scores on tests taken in Washington schools this spring improved as much as three percentage points from the previous year, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which released the test results Tuesday.
While Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent, said he applauded the progress, he admitted there’s still work ahead.
Although more than 72 percent of Washington 11th-graders met the standard for English language arts, only 21.8 percent of state’s 11th-graders met the math standard. That leaves 78 percent of high school juniors who did not meet the standard. Statewide, that translates to thousands of students who aren’t proficient in math.
“It’s good, I’m not saying great,” Dorn said. “I think when the other states come out with their scores, we’ll be in some of the top slots. We’re in the bottom third as far as per pupil expenditures, but in academic performance, we’re in the top third.”
The tests include the Smarter Balanced Assessment in English language arts and math, as well as the science Measurements of Student Progress. This is the second year students in all 295 school districts in the state took the Smarter Balanced tests.
Both statewide and in Clark County school districts, math scores were lower than English language arts scores.
Evergreen Public Schools, the county’s largest district, had an impressive number — 74 percent — of 11th-graders who met the state standard in English language arts. Vancouver Public Schools’ number trailed slightly at 72.3 percent.
But the math numbers were not as high. In Evergreen, only 13.7 percent of 11th-graders met the state standard. In Vancouver, that number was 25.6 percent. Statewide, 21.8 percent of students met the math standard.
Some Clark County school districts had scores that consistently surpassed the state average.
Students in Camas performed higher than the state average, and often by large margins. Hockinson scores also exceeded the state average in many grade levels. Among the Clark County school districts, Camas and Hockinson have the lowest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal indicator of poverty.
Preliminary results indicated that schools with a higher percentage of minority students and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch have lower test scores.
Dorn said he had an answer to close that opportunity gap, but it’s a directive to the state Legislature, which has been held in contempt by the state Supreme Court for not fully funding basic education. That court case is known as the McCleary decision.
“Fund McCleary,” he said. “School districts that are ‘the haves’ can raise bigger levies, pay their teachers more, give students more opportunities before and after school, more field trips and better technology. I’m going to fight like crazy to try to level the playing field. That’s my plan.”
Dorn pointed out that the imbalance in test scores from district to district and school to school “is not just McCleary. It’s also early childhood education. If we’re really going to make a difference, we’ve got to reach those kids who start kindergarten a grade level behind.”
He emphasized the importance of paying for early learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. He also talked about lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade with high-quality teachers.
Dorn suggested the opportunity gap between lower- and higher-performing schools could be reduced by paying teachers in low-performing schools more to stay there rather than transfer to higher-performing schools.
“I think we need to do some policy work to keep the best teachers,” he added.
Districts across the state have reported it’s more difficult to recruit and retain teachers. It’s a bigger challenge in rural districts, which can’t pay teachers as much as suburban districts do.
Washington schools tested 97 to 98 percent of their students in grades three through eight, with no more than 3 percent of students in any single grade refusing to take the tests. For 11th-graders, the refusal rate was higher.
In 2014-2015, a large number of students, particularly high school students, refused to take the tests. When that happens, those students score a zero, and that drags down the overall scores. In the 2015-2016 school year, far fewer students refused to take the tests, Dorn said.
Students in third through eighth grade take both English language arts and math tests. High school juniors also are tested in English language arts and math. Sophomores are tested in biology, and fifth- and eighth-graders take a science test.
Students take the interactive tests on electronic tablets or laptop computers. When a student answers a question correctly, the test feeds the student a more difficult question.
While the old test the state used before Smarter Balanced indicated whether students were proficient to graduate from high school, the new tests demonstrate proficiency to be college- or career-ready, Dorn said.
The Smarter Balanced tests are more challenging than the old test. Last year, the first year Washington students took the tests, state officials expected the scores to be lower than the old test. They were, but they set a benchmark, Dorn said.
Students in the classes of 2017 and beyond need to meet standards in English language arts, math and biology assessments to graduate from high school.
Last school year, schools received students’ test results at the end of June when school had been released for the summer. Dorn said the goal next school year is to have students complete state testing in May so that they can receive their results before school releases for summer. That will help students determine their schedule for the next school year.
For instance, if a high school junior wasn’t proficient in the math assessment, he could take another math class his senior year to help him reach proficiency.
“I’d like to give kids a clear indicator so they can use their senior year to get college- and career-ready,” Dorn said.