The Washington Assessment of Student Learning will be replaced next year by tests that are considerably shorter and will eventually be taken online. At the same time, state schools chief Randy Dorn wants more emphasis on lowering the dropout rate.

For years, the release of WASL test scores has been accompanied by careful parsing of the numbers to figure out what they meant. Were students improving, or were they sliding backward?

But now the Washington Assessment of Student Learning is going away, to be replaced next year by tests that are considerably shorter and will eventually be taken online.

And new state Superintendent Randy Dorn is trying to shift the focus away from how many students passed — the number was 93 percent for the class of 2009 — and look instead at the number that failed — or never took it at all because they dropped out of school.

Last year Dorn defeated longtime schools chief Terry Bergeson, an ardent supporter of the WASL. He immediately announced that he would change the controversial test, and at a news conference Thursday to release high-school WASL test scores, he reiterated a pledge to focus on the dropout rate.

Dorn said he believes about one in four students are dropping out of school before graduation — slightly more than the official number the state uses of about 21 percent. He said the state education office will try to address the issue by looking at “who’s doing the best job of improving the dropout rate,” but he did not provide many specifics.

The state teachers union praised Dorn for examining how dropouts may have affected the true picture of the latest WASL scores, said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association.

But Edie Harding, executive director of the state Board of Education, said she was “struck by the paucity of information” Dorn provided about how high-school students did this year — — particularly in the math portions.

The class of 2011 — the 10th graders who took the test this spring — passed the reading portion by 78 percent, and the writing portion by about 83 percent. But in math, only 45 percent met the standard.

“He didn’t say, ‘Here’s my plan to address math,’ ” Harding said. “He is actually now the superintendent, and I do want to know what he’s going to do with math.”

Right now, students do not have to pass the math test before graduation, but if they fail it, they must take two credits of math after 10th grade. About 73 percent of the class of 2009 passed the math WASL.

The standard changes for the class of 2013 — those students who are now just finishing eighth grade. They will be required to pass the new math assessment before they can graduate.

Lindquist, of the WEA, said Dorn’s numbers were “a lot more straightforward” because they took into account the on-time graduation rate.

Dorn said the WASL numbers may appear to show that the achievement gap between how certain minorities and white students do on tests is shrinking.

However, he said, another number — the percentage of those students who graduate on time from high school — hints at the number that may actually be dropping out. For example, just 48 percent of American Indian students graduate on time. For Pacific Islanders, the number is 59 percent, and for African Americans, the figure is 60 percent.

White students have an on-time graduation rate of 75 percent, and Asians graduate on time at a rate of about 81 percent.

“You have populations of students that are doing much worse,” Dorn said. “We have to look at that and be honest with the public of where we stand today.”

Lindquist said the WASL may have even contributed to the higher dropout rate over the years. Some students may drop out of school before graduation because they thought they could never pass the WASL.

The WEA opposes such high-stakes tests.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com