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Fewer Students Pass Washington's New, Harder Statewide Test — But It Could've Been Worse

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Fewer Washington students passed a new, harder statewide standardized test this year — but the exam didn't trip up as many kids as some had feared.

For instance, roughly 58 percent of fifth graders earned "proficient" English scores in their first year taking the new Smarter Balanced tests, according to early results state officials released Thursday. Compare that with 72 percent of last year's fifth graders who passed the state's old benchmark reading exam, the MSP.

Some educators had been bracing for much worse news. Last year, during a national trial run of the Smarter Balanced exams, only 44 percent of fifth graders passed their English tests — and across most grade levels, only 30 or 40 percent of students showed they had achieved proficiency.

"Most of the scores in the grade levels are 15 to 20 percentage points above what the projections were for proficiency," said Chris Barron, spokesman for a nonprofit education foundation called the Partnership for Learning. "So, early results, you have to be encouraged."

"I've got to take my hats off to the students of the state, parents of the state and the teachers of the state for accepting the challenge," said an excited state schools superintendent Randy Dorn in an interview.

The numbers offer the first measurement of how well Washington students are meeting the expectations outlined in the Common Core, a more rigorous set of academic standards the state has been rolling out since 2011. State officials say, since the new standards are harder, the Smarter Balanced tests are harder too.

Take a look at the results below. (Mobile users, click here to see the charts in a new tab.)

State officials said it's not possible to compare the pass rates between the old and new tests, since the Smarter Balanced assessments are a test of students' readiness to succeed in career training or post-secondary education.  

"The old scale was, 'What do you need to know to just barely graduate from high school?'" Dorn said. "But we all know that just graduating from high school isn't just setting you up to be successful in life, that you're going to have to have training beyond high school."

Schools are still returning test score data to Dorn's office. He said the preliminary numbers reflect "roughly 90 percent" of results. However, the pass rates do not factor in students who refused to sit for the exams, whose scores are counted as zeroes.

Dorn said his office will release preliminary numbers detailing how many students opted out next week. He said it's likely that, when those numbers are finalized, fewer than 95 percent of students in Grades 10 and 11 will have taken the test.

That's important because the federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to ensure 95 percent of all students participate in state testing. It's not clear whether falling short of that mark would trigger some sanction from federal officials.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.