Students in Washington showed slight improvement on English exams but still performed poorly in math.

Share story

Washington’s 1.1 million public-school students are performing slightly better on English exams than they were in years past, according to new numbers released by the state education department this week.

But when it comes to math — and the overall performance of students with disabilities, English learners and students of color — the state hasn’t made much progress.

“We’re on a long journey,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington state schools chief.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Overall, the passage rate on English language arts (ELA) was highest among 10th-graders, 70 percent of whom reached state benchmarks, but was as low as 56 percent in third grade. The scores were flipped in math, with about 58 percent of third-graders and only 41 percent of 10th-graders meeting standards in that subject.

What the data tell us

About 59 percent of eighth-grade students statewide passed the English exam, up a percentage point from last year’s 58 percent and three percentage points from the 2014-2015 school year. (There were a few grade levels that appeared to be recovering from a dip in the passing rates in the previous year.)

In math, the numbers barely moved. The passing rates after fifth grade drop to just under half, a trend that hasn’t changed in four years.

Eighth-grade students who are learning how to speak English made some small gains in the language exam, but only 9.5 percent passed. In math, the scores were lower than they were four years ago.

“We’ve been behind a long time in math and science,” said Reykdal.

Students receiving special-education services did best in third-grade math, where 27.9 percent of them passed. For these students, the lowest scores came in 10th-grade math, where just 5 percent of them passed.

Disparities in scores between black and Latino students and their white peers don’t appear to be narrowing much, either. In 10th grade, the gaps between black and white students are nearly 30 percentage points wide.

Why it matters

Washington tests its public-school students every year in math and reading in grades three through eight, and once in high school. Fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade students also take a science test. These tests are required by federal law.

The state four years ago first started using the Smarter Balanced tests, along with 20 other states, to align with the Common Core academic standards, a set of learning goals that received federal support from the Obama administration. Early results in Washington suggested a dramatic dip in proficiency among students, but test-makers had warned that fewer students would rank as “proficient” — at least initially — since the new standards and tests were widely considered significantly more rigorous.

Along with other non-testing data, like graduation rates and attendance, the assessment is a “snapshot” that helps the state understand district-level performance, said Reykdal.

The schools chief also wants to use this data to lobby the Legislature for more state investment, particularly for teacher professional development and special-education services. Lawmakers already have suggested special education will get much more attention in next year’s legislative session, and in the new state budget, school districts will receive more money for teacher training

In Seattle, the state’s largest school district, students across most grade levels, subjects and ethnic groups outperformed state averages. Students with disabilities in Seattle, for example, posted average passage rates at about 24 percentage points and 12 percentage points above their peers in the state in ELA and math, respectively.

However, both Asian and black students in Seattle fell below the state average. Seattle Public Schools did not make a representative available for an interview to discuss the data.

What the data don’t tell us

The state just overhauled its science exams, so there isn’t much year-over-year information available.

Another thing to keep in mind: Even though educators traditionally describe test scores in terms of growth and increases, the Smarter Balanced tests are not longitudinal — meaning, the exams don’t follow a single cohort of kids. That matters in the short run, since changes in the student population each year are harder to capture with test scores. (A Stanford researcher has suggested that the housing affordability crisis in Seattle could explain part of that district’s test-score growth.)

There’s also concern about reliability. The Washington State Charter Schools Association, which supports the growing number of privately run but publicly funded charter schools, found student demographic information significantly undercounted the number of special-needs children attending three charter schools.

A spokesman for Reykdal’s office said the mistake likely stems from the relatively new charter schools’ staff — and their potential lack of familiarity with Washington’s data collection and reporting system.

Sharonne Navas, co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, suggested the test scores don’t help teachers since the results arrive so late. “Testing in April to get results in July to give them to a teacher in September who no longer has that student is ridiculous,” she said in an email.

For Tracy Castro-Gill, the Puget Sound regional teacher of the year, test results don’t matter much.

She taught social studies for four years at Denny International Middle School in Seattle and recently moved to the central office to steer the district’s ethnic studies program. And while Castro-Gill said test scores may reveal some racial divides in schools, she cautioned parents not to take the data too seriously.

“Don’t let this define your children,” she said.

Seattle Times staff reporter and researcher Justin Mayo contributed to this report.