State swaps in new standardized math, English exams

The state is swapping in a new standardized test, the latest shake-up in an 18-year saga that started with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

The new Smarter Balanced exams for math and English are being taken this spring by third through eighth and 11th grade students. For most high-schoolers, passing is not yet a graduation requirement. Previous incarnations of the statewide standardized test are being phased out while Smarter Balanced is being phased in over the next three years.

The exception is a Smarter Balanced English-Language Arts assessment for the class of 2017, currently sophomores. For them, the test is a graduation requirement. There are other lifelines for students, including the option to submit a portfolio of work.

In a Smarter Balanced field test last year that spanned multiple states, including Washington, nearly 60 percent of 11th-graders failed the English portion.

The state Board of Education isn’t sure yet where they’ll set the graduation threshold for 10th-graders this year, but they do know they’ll likely have to lower the bar.

The national board that oversees Smarter Balanced testing set “college and career ready thresholds” in November 2014, breaking test scores into four levels. Level four is a thorough understanding of the test material, level three is adequate, level two partial and level one shows “minimal understanding.” The Board of Education in January adopted those levels for Washington.

The board aims to set a separate graduation threshold for 10th-graders that would let about the same percentage of students meet graduation requirements as in past years. Based on the 78 percent of sophomores who passed the now-defunct reading and writing high school proficiency exams last year, the new graduation cutoff likely would fall into level one — a “minimal understanding” — under the Smarter Balanced system, according to a January presentation.

Normally, students would need to score a level three or four to pass — something only 41 percent managed on last year’s field test.

Sophomores who don’t pass the test have a chance to retake it their junior and senior years, or pursue other graduation options.

The Board of Education also is setting a new graduation threshold for transitional math tests meant to keep the current end-of-course exam format but rely on the same Common Core education standards as Smarter Balanced.

Like the English test, a cutoff for the math exam that allows the same percentage of students to pass this year as in past years likely will land in the “minimal understanding” level.

Graduation thresholds may be adjusted as students, teachers, parents and administrators get familiar with new education standards and the Smarter Balanced system. That’s up to the Board of Education.

Test results already are trickling in to school districts for third-grade students, the first group to be tested this spring.

Students and parents can expect to see scores in July or August. OSPI anticipates having statewide results by then, but school districts will receive preliminary scores sooner, spokesman Nathan Olson said.

Most Snohomish County districts plan to release scores once the state comes out with final numbers. That avoids confusion for parents and allows the state to firm up the numbers rather than relying on preliminary data, Arlington School District spokeswoman Andrea Conley said.

The Marysville School District has started receiving third-grade scores, but wants to get a clearer picture of what they mean so they can help parents understand, said Jack Monpas-Huber, director of assessment and student information services.

With online exams, school districts can get initial scores three weeks after testing, said Andy Muntz, Mukilteo School District spokesman. However, those scores still need audited for accuracy.

The exams must be done by June 15, but each district has its own testing schedule. In Lakewood, testing wraps up in May, while Monroe students will be testing into June, according to district officials.

The state Board of Education meets Aug. 25 in Olympia to set the new graduation thresholds.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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