Washington state had one of the highest testing participation rates in the country this school year, topping 90%.

But since school districts got access to their data a few months ago, many educators have chosen to keep the data at an arm’s length — echoing the stance of the state’s superintendent, who said in January that his agency wouldn’t spend much energy on the scores. The assessments this year were shorter and taken in the fall to test students on the previous year’s learning, instead of the typical spring timeline. Washington was one of only a handful of states delay the testing.

The fall test-score data “does not provide a comprehensive picture of where our students are at this point in time, said Catherine Carbone Rogers, a spokesperson for the Highline School District. “It tested students on the previous year’s grade level content, which was taught during a monumentally disruptive year.” Carbone Rogers said the spring test scores “will test learning in the current year, giving us much more reliable data on student learning, when put alongside…other classroom data.”

Among large school districts in the Puget Sound region, scores fell or stayed the same for just about every demographic group, at every school district. In general, those declines were more dramatic in school systems serving many students in poverty.

Washington students’ test scores drop significantly in first exams since pandemic began

Given inconsistencies with testing nationwide this year, experts have stressed pairing the state assessments with other data. Without those inputs, leading a school system is like driving at night without headlights, said Christine Pitts, a resident policy fellow at the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Pitts used to lead the research and evaluation team at Portland Public Schools in Oregon.

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Districts like Seattle say they are deploying smaller tests more frequently to guide classroom learning. In that district, where reading scores fell by 6.3 percentage points and math by 16.3, officials say they have avoided comparing the state test outcomes with prior years.

And yet, a comparison of 2021 and 2019 state test scores still show clear evidence of longstanding and worsening racial inequity. Falling scores at critical junctions, such as reading in third grade, or math at 11th grade, experts say, could also signal serious problems.

“They really tell us … the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on our students and families of color, and how we need to strengthen our curriculum to be more engaging to the diversity of our district,” said Aira Jackson-Sams, director of assessment and instructional improvement at SPS.

Just 18% of Native American students and 30% of Black students in Seattle met grade level standards in math in this year’s tests, compared with 64% of white students on average.

Seattle area school district scores on state tests

Typical to pre-pandemic trends, school districts with higher numbers of students living in poverty generally saw steeper declines in their scores on state tests between spring 2019 and fall 2021.

Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The downward trend is true for districts across the country, with none of the loss coming as a surprise. In-person learning, which research has linked to academic achievement, was less likely to be offered to kids living in poverty.

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“I have not pursued digging deeper into [state test scores] because in part — by the time the results arrived, I had an idea of where students are,” said David Buitenveld, who teaches math at Nisqually Middle School at the North Thurston School District outside of Olympia.

Buitenveld, who was nominated in 2021 for the Washington State Teacher of the Year award, said in typical years he would keep an eye on where students grew the most and the least, and tailor his class accordingly.

But that growth data which gives teachers a historical trend line for their students at, below, and above grade level, wasn’t readily available this year, and he hasn’t seen the data for his classes yet. A glance at his school’s scores showed the socioeconomic disparities of the outcomes, which is nothing new, he said.

Of the subjects on the test, math saw the worst decline in scores. Just 33% of kids in the state met standards for math in 2021, down from half in 2019.

Buitenveld said he doesn’t know why that’s the case compared to other subjects, but he noted how difficult it was, during remote and hybrid learning, to have a free flowing conversation when students get stuck on a problem concept.

Based on some smaller tests and assignments he gave students in the early weeks of fall, he began changing a few practices. He looked back at what his students learned in elementary school, and now incorporates those concepts into his teaching. Fractions, which have always been a tough concept for his students, now receive even more airtime. To support English learners, he and his colleagues are now also thinking of more ways to represent math in images to help with language barriers.

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Though the tests weren’t all that helpful for him this year, he says the state should have a “serious conversation” about moving exams to the fall permanently. The spring assessments give him valuable data about students just weeks before they leave his classroom for summer break.

School districts will get another round of fresh data this spring, with the testing window opening starting March and ending in June. State officials said they will reserve their meatier analysis for that round of the numbers.

“There are many factors contributing to outcomes in any year, and the fall tests had additional confounding factors – which makes attributing impact to any one of them difficult,” said Deb Came, assistant superintendent of assessment and student information at the state education department.

In Indiana, state officials studied the numbers closely. The state contracted with third-party to produce an analysis that accounted for the differences in the pre-pandemic and current state assessments.

But Pitts, the policy expert at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, said that “if people don’t place a lot of value in these assessments, I can imagine they wouldn’t want to contract with someone to find out more.”

There were no signs that students fared better in some areas of the state compared to others, and state officials have yet to perform a full analysis of the test assessment data, and how much remote schooling may have affected the scores.

Puget Sound area school districts saw an 8.7 percentage point decline in reading scores, an identical drop to their counterparts in Washington’s northeastern-most cluster of school districts, which state officials refer to as Educational Service District (ESD) 101. Math scores in Western school districts saw a steeper drop than those in ESD 101, but only by 5 percentage points.