Don’t lower bar set by new tests

Not taking a test tends to bring down your score.

That’s one of the takeaways from this week’s release of results of the state’s Smarter Balanced tests for students in third through eighth grades and the 11th grade.

This was the test’s first year in all districts. Statewide and for most school districts in the county, the results met or exceeded the expectations of school officials including state Superintendent of Instruction Randy Dorn.

“That says to me that students are capable of learning our new standards, which are designed to make sure students are ready for career and college,” Dorn said in a statement.

Statewide, for third- through eighth-graders, the percentage of students who scored as “proficient” ranged from 52 percent to 58 for the English language test and between 46 percent and 57 percent in the math assessment. Everyone will want to see higher percentages and soon, but Dorn and others said, those results compare well against scores from the first year of the WASL in 1997, the state’s earlier attempt at a testing standard, when just over 20 percent passed. The percentages this year also are higher than the 2014 field test of Smarter Balance, where less than 40 percent reached proficiency.

Locally, the numbers were mixed with Everett, Lake Stevens and Stanwood school districts scoring several points higher than state averages for most grades, most districts matching state numbers and a few, including Monroe and Marysville, a few points below.

The disappointment came with scores among last school year’s juniors, this fall’s senior class. Often with the approval and even the encouragement of parents, many juniors last spring elected not to take the test, some protesting the Smarter Balance tests’ link to federal Common Core standards. Others opted out because juniors had already taken and passed another test that satisfied the graduation requirement.

Those opting out drastically drove down the percentage of 11th grade students passing. Statewide, only 26 percent passed the English test; 14 percent, the math test. Scores were even grimmer for some county districts. In Marysville, only 18 percent passed the English test and 5 percent the math test. In Monroe those numbers were 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

The Smarter Balance test’s strengths include its ability to adapt to the child taking it, adjusting the next question based on how well previous questions were answered. It should provide teachers a better tool for assessing each student’s understanding of a subject and how to direct studies from there, regardless of how students score.

But Dorn, while pleased with the first year’s results, is now pulling back support for using the 11th grade test in determining whether those students are ready to graduate. The test should be an evaluation tool, he said, not “a graduation hurdle.”

The 11th grade test should remain as a part of the graduation requirement. There should be options — and there are — that allow seniors to meet similar standards when they don’t pass the test, but don’t lower the bar.

The number of students who opted out because the test wasn’t a graduation requirement this year shows what could happen if passing the test is removed as a prerequisite for a diploma.

Hurdles have their place, especially when you want to be certain students can clear the taller hurdles of college or job training that then lead to careers that support and fulfill them.

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