Last year, Washington state proposed an ambitious plan to satisfy a federal education law: 90% of all students from every group would reach proficiency in English language arts, math and science within the next decade.
But new standardized tests results released Tuesday show how far students are from those goals.
A Seattle Times analysis of results from the Smarter Balanced tests taken this spring shows that nearly every group of students — sorted by race, income, disability and language skill — is not making enough progress in any of the three subjects to eventually reach the statewide targets in 2027. Beyond that overall performance, there were profound gaps between how closely schools could bring different groups to the 90% target.
In English language arts (ELA), for example, Asian students were just one percentage point away from hitting state goals. In science, Washington expected 52.5% of black students to pass the exam this year. Just under 25% did.
Only one student group in one subject — Asian students, in math — met the 2019 goals that the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction set to measure which students are on pace to hit the 90% mark.
Statewide, 59.6% of all students passed the ELA exam, with passage rates of 48.9% and 46.7% in math and science, respectively. Last year, those numbers were 59.4%, 49.5% and 46.2%.
In a phone interview, state schools chief Chris Reykdal compared the proficiency tests to baseball, suggesting what students experience outside of school contribute to low passage rates.
While that may be true, school districts across Washington have tried to lessen the impact of what happens outside of school, such as providing more stability for homeless students or hosting one-stop-shops for low-income families on campus.
“Our curveball is poverty. Our curveball is systemic racism,” he said. “The fastball coming at us is language barriers.
“There are just other factors that are significantly more important when it comes to test performance.”
Changes in test scores from one year to the next aren’t all that significant — they’re measuring different groups of students, and in the short run, increases or dips can reflect population change.
Still, even the slight decline in math performance surprised Doug McRae, a retired standardized-testing specialist who tracks the results from states that administer the Smarter Balanced exams to measure student progress.
“It’s not a good sign,” he said. “It’s something that the state superintendent should dwell on.”
Since Reykdal took office in 2017, test scores have improved slightly.
The passage rates for ELA and math increased by 0.9 percentage points and 1.5 percentage points, respectively, over the past two years. Since the 2014-15 school year — the most recent data available — passage rates rose 9 percentage points in ELA and 4.6 percentage points in math.
So far, only three states along with Washington have released their Smarter Balanced results for the 2018-19 school year: Connecticut, Delaware and Idaho.
Students in the Evergreen State first took the new exams in 2015, joining their peers in 10 other states that picked Smarter Balanced to align with new academic standards. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, however, found that Washington’s tests still set a lower bar for proficiency than the federal government’s national assessment.
“Unless you compare them to something else, to something that was expected or some other state, the numbers don’t have their own natural interpretation,” McRae said.
The new test results also reveal long-running gaps in the passage rates between student groups.
Reykdal highlighted the performance of English learners, whose passage rates ranged from just 7% to 13%. Only 17% to 21% of students with a disability met grade-level standards on the tests, and passage rates for children living in poverty were consistently about half that of their peers in every subject.
“We know who struggled on standardized tests,” Reykdal said, adding that he wonders whether all students need to perform well on an exam, or if schools could provide more support to help them into college or work.
In Seattle, the state’s largest school district, the share of students who passed the Smarter Balanced exams topped the statewide averages for each subject.
But some gaps have widened in Seattle: Between black and white students, for example, the gap in ELA increased from 39.9 percentage points in 2014-15 to 44.7 percentage points last year. The gap in math grew from 38.7 percentage points five years ago to 47.2 percentage points in 2018-19.
Seattle Public Schools “is committed to ensuring academic success is in reach for all students,” the district said on social media. “That’s why our new (strategic) plan is laser-focused on supporting students furthest from educational justice, starting with African American males.”