Many local students still struggle with math, tests show

In Edmonds, however, standardized test scores rose after an emphasis on teaching data analysis.

EDMONDS — Math continues to be a sticking point for students on state tests, and many local districts saw lower proficiency rates on English exams this year compared to last.

That’s according to test results released last week by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Proficiency is measured as falling in the “3” or “4” range on state tests, for which scores are divided into levels from 1 to 4.

Showing proficiency in English and math is required to graduate. For the Class of 2017, students could pass state exams or seek a waiver based on academic performance.

Starting with the class of 2018, the exams will be one option for showing proficiency, as will college placement tests, a grade-point comparison or taking additional classes or local assessments. That’s all part of legislation passed earlier this year, which also moves the tests from junior to sophomore year.

Though there are other options to graduate, students still need to take state tests, said Nathan Olson, spokesman with the superintendent’s office. It’s a federal requirement, and a way to monitor student progress.

It’s one way educators know that math remains a struggle.

High school teachers and administrators have focused on improving math scores. In the Edmonds School District, test results suggest it’s working.

In the 2015-16 school year, about 20 percent of juniors in Edmonds high schools were proficient on the math test. In 2016-17, that jumped to more than 34 percent.

At Mountlake Terrace High School, nearly half of juniors scored in the 3 or 4 range on the test this spring or earlier in high school. That’s almost double the statewide rate of 26 percent.

Last year, teachers took a hard look at previous results, Assistant Principal Peter Schurke said. They found that students wrestled with questions that required them to defend a claim with data. While students could spend well over an hour testing, many finished in 20 minutes.

“They weren’t doing a thorough enough job defending their claims because we weren’t doing a thorough enough job of teaching them that,” Schurke said.

It became a school-wide focus. In one class, students were given a project to gather their own data, make a claim and back it up.

There also was a push to get students to take the tests seriously. Schurke stressed that scoring high could help them avoid paying for remedial classes in college that don’t count for credit.

Schurke thinks moving exams to sophomore year will help students and teachers as they look at who needs extra help and what topics should be revisited.

“When we get the data earlier, it’s more like a checkup,” Schurke said. “If we don’t get the data until the end of junior year, it’s more like an autopsy.”

He’s glad to see the increase in math proficiency, but work is far from over. One hundred percent needs to be the goal, he said.

Sara Lowes, assistant principal at Lynnwood High School, said there’s been a focus on team problem solving for students, and on helping teachers understand the curriculum that will be tested. Topics they know will be tested are woven into multiple classes and introduced early in high school.

The school saw a year-over-year jump from just over 32 percent of students meeting proficiency on the math test to nearly 39 percent.

“We’re working for those kind of results,” Lowes said. “Math learning in this region, and many regions in the country, has been a tough nut to crack.”

Though Edmonds saw success in improving math scores, that’s not the norm.

At least six local districts had a lower percentage of students passing the test than the state average. Five were higher — Lake Stevens was highest at 44 percent — while results for three districts were not available because of student privacy rules.

Most Snohomish County districts were above the state proficiency rate for English. Across Washington, about 74 percent of juniors scored a “3” or higher on that exam. Eight local districts, including Edmonds and Everett, the two largest in the county, were near or higher than 80 percent.

However, even districts that had relatively high proficiency rates saw a decrease compared to last year, part of a statewide trend.

Students proficient on state exams (spring 2017)
District 11th-grade English 11th-grade math 10th-grade science
Arlington 79% 36.4% 79.5%
Darrington 55.5% 11.5% 68.5%
Edmonds 80.5% 34.3% 75.3%
Everett 80.2% 41.5% 79.2%
Granite Falls 63% 22.3% 66.8%
Lake Stevens 81.4% 43.8% 78%
Lakewood unavailable 22.5% 76.3%
Marysville 66.4% 25.2% 61.9%
Monroe 71.6% unavailable 77.8%
Mukilteo 80.6% 15.5% 79.7%
Northshore 87.6% 34.3% 88.5%
Snohomish 82.1% 18.1% 78.4%
Stanwood-Camano 79.7% unavailable 77.2%
Sultan 67.1% unavailable 74.4%
Statewide 73.6% 25.9% 71.5%

Meanwhile, most local districts saw a higher percentage of sophomores passing this spring’s biology exam than the statewide average. The science test was going to be a graduation requirement for the Class of 2017, but state lawmakers decided to waive it, allowing at least 66 local students to graduate.

The Smarter Balanced math and English exams were rolled out in 2015, and were taken this spring in grades 3 to 8 and 11. Science tests were for grades 5, 8 and 10.

Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, called standardized tests a “good dipstick” to see where improvement is needed. This year’s results show that the biggest gaps in knowledge are in subject areas — English versus math — and among groups of students, such as between low-income students and their peers.

“Those gaps are telling us that we have a lot of work to do,” Reykdal said in a news release.

Under federal requirements, the state must submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education outlining how Washington districts plan to narrow gaps and track progress.

The state has been keeping tabs on other student data in hopes of improving education. Officials are looking at absences, discipline and freshman course failure rates, as well as test scores. Absences and course failure are some of the most reliable indicators of whether a student will graduate.

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

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