A preliminary look at how Washington students did on the new Smarter Balanced exams shows they did better than many feared. Still, passing rates were lower than on the old tests.

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State officials stressed the positive when releasing preliminary results on new state tests Thursday, saying more students passed the exams than they had predicted.

Still, the passage rates dropped on the new tests, called Smarter Balanced, which are billed as tougher than the exams they replaced and are based on the Common Core learning standards that most states now use.

In 2014, for example, between 70 and 80 percent of Washington students passed the previous state reading exam. And in math, the passage rate was between 55 and 65 percent, depending on the grade.

On the new state tests, the reading passage rate dropped to 53 to 62 percent, and the math rate ranged from 29 to 57 percent.

But based on field test data from Washington and 20 other states last year, officials had predicted this year’s passage rates would be even lower, closer to 30 to 40 percent in both subjects.

Officials warned that these numbers may change as they get more data. For now, they have scores from about 90 percent of students who took the tests this spring.

The tests are given to students in grades 3-8, and once in high school.

The only test where students did worse than predicted was in high-school math. About 29 percent of the state’s 11th-graders passed that exam.

On last year’s field test, about 33 percent passed.

In an interview Thursday, state schools chief Randy Dorn said he was happy with the results, because they were higher than predicted. The new tests were designed to be more challenging, he said, asking students to explain their reasoning and show their work more often. Some questions also had more than one right answer.

Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the results were “a little better than we expected.”

“But we expected to outperform (other states),” he said, adding that Washington typically outperforms the national average on tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT.

Both Rarick and Dorn suggested the less than one-in-three passage rate for high-school math might be tied to the fact that many high-school juniors decided, as a protest, to skip that test, which is their right.

Many of the same students didn’t take the reading test, either, but because more students took that exam — sophomores as well as juniors — the protesters wouldn’t affect scores so much, Dorn said.

For this year’s sophomores, passing the reading test is a graduation requirement.

On Thursday, officials did not release a tally of how many students across the state opted out of state testing. That information is scheduled to be released July 9, and complete scores will be released Aug. 17.

Officials also announced that the U.S. Department of Education has agreed not to punish schools or districts based on their scores on the new Smarter Balanced tests this year, which Dorn had requested.

He had wanted schools to have at least a year to transition to the new test.

But the state could run into problems if too many students opted out of the tests. The feds have hinted at possible sanctions if fewer than 95 percent of students participate, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for Dorn’s office.

Washington is not the only state where passing rates dipped on the new Smarter Balanced exams — the same happened in Oregon, for example.

The nonprofit group Stand for Children Washington emphasized the importance of tougher standards after the scores were released Thursday.

“We are excited about these results because, for far too long, Washington has been sending high-school graduates off to college unprepared,” Dave Powell, Stand for Children Washington’s executive director, said in a prepared statement.

Schools were supposed to get scores earlier — no more than three weeks after a student finished testing.

But poor scheduling by the national group in charge of administering the exams here caused several weeks of delay for some of the scores.

Starting in 2019, all public-school students must pass the Smarter Balanced reading and math exams before graduating from high school, although a passing score has yet to be determined.

The state Board of Education will make that call, Rarick said, and plans to set the threshold so that roughly the same percentage of students graduate from high school as in the past.