Tri-Cities see little change in student test scores

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldAugust 26, 2013 

Tri-City school districts mirrored the statewide trend of little movement in student performance on the latest standardized tests compared with last year.

Some grades did have noticeable changes, such as a 12-percentage point decline in seventh-grade reading scores in Richland.

And scores on End Of Course, or EOC, exams in high school algebra, geometry and biology saw improvement in Kennewick, Pasco and Richland and in most of the outlying school districts.

But performance on tests given to third-graders up to sophomores -- the Measures of Student Progress, or MSP, and the High School Proficiency Exams, or HSPEs -- saw little change, often less than five percentage points, in either direction.

"There's a disappointment when you don't see continual movement," said Liz Flynn, Pasco's assistant superintendent of instructional services.

Statewide snapshot

State Superintendent Randy Dorn applauded student performance on the EOC exams, saying in a press release that 90 percent of the Class of 2013 met all the requirements for graduation. That included a new requirement to pass one of two math EOC exams.

"These passing rates are high," Dorn said. "I'm proud of the work done by teachers, students and their families to reach these levels."

Reading scores were up statewide for third- through fifth-graders, as well as for sophomores. Math scores rose for fourth- and seventh-graders. And fourth-graders also did better in writing. But most of those increases were minimal.

"There aren't any dramatic changes from last year," he said. "But our scores are up on more tests than down.

Kennewick

Kennewick saw modest gains in fifth- and eighth-grade science scores as well as in fourth-, fifth- and seventh-grade math; fourth- and tenth-grade writing; and in third- fifth- and tenth-grade reading.

A few grades saw dips, the most notable being an 8 percentage point drop in eighth-grade reading and a 6 percentage point fall in seventh-grade writing.

District spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper said the district still is analyzing some of the testing data, particularly for students at the district's alternative high schools. However, district officials are pleased with the EOC scores and the district's three high schools are near or at state averages.

"This tells us our high schools are doing a tremendous job of accomplishing our mission, which is ensuring our students are well prepared for post-secondary education, work and life," Cooper said in an email.

She added that the frequent changes to the state's standardized tests in recent years makes it hard to find solid trends.

"I think it is difficult to draw conclusions from the static scores between this year and last," Cooper said.

Pasco

All Pasco writing scores were down, but most by only a tenth of a percentage point, and all science scores were up. Math and reading had mixed results with most grades improving scores slightly in one category but falling back a little in the other.

The district's sixth graders had the most notable decline, posting a 7 percentage point drop in math and almost a 9 percentage point drop in reading.

Flynn said she and other district leaders were pleased with how high school students performed but added this year's test scores show the importance of the McCleary decision, a Washington Supreme Court order requiring that the state fully fund K-12 education. The Legislature pumped $1 billion more into education this year to comply with the court, though education leaders said the increase wasn't enough.

"I think our politicians need to realize we've gone as far as we can with the resources we have," she said.

The state tests are set to change after this year with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which cover language arts and math. Flynn said Pasco students will be prepared for those new exams while also being ready for one more round of the current testing format.

"I still think we're preparing our students well," she said.

Richland

Richland continues to have the highest overall test scores in the Mid-Columbia, but it did slip in some areas.

Along with the big drop in seventh-grade reading, it saw its fifth- and eighth-grade science scores drop a few points and had mixed results in math. On the positive side, all writing scores improved.

Richland School Board Chairman Rick Jansons said he hadn't yet seen his district's test results but that he has become increasingly reluctant to take them at face value.

The scores are important but are only one measure of student accomplishment, he said. Jansons said the companies that develop the tests acknowledge that there can be large margins of error year to year, preventing fair comparisons to past student performance.

"With the seventh grade, the numbers have gone up and down and the programs haven't changed much," he said.

Outlying districts

Districts outside the Tri-Cities saw the same trend in improving EOC test scores. Most increased the EOC passage rate between 10 to 20 percentage points. About 75 percent of the North Franklin School District's high school students passed the biology exam, almost a 32-percentage point increase.

The Finley School District was the only regional district to see a decline in EOC test scores, with 70 percent of its high school students passing the state geometry test, about a 10-percentage point decline compared with the year before.

The smaller districts tended to have larger fluctuations in their test scores. The Columbia School District in Burbank saw its fifth-grade math scores jump more than 30 percentage points, but also almost a 27 percentage point decline in fourth-grade writing. The Kiona-Benton City School District had double digit percentage point increases in reading scores for third- through fifth-graders but a 20 percentage point drop in seventh-grade reading.

The Prosser School District saw all reading scores except for sophomores drop, some by as much as 9 percentage points. Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said he and other administrators still were looking at the scores but did notice that decline.

"It doesn't feel right when the scores don't come in as we anticipated them," Tolcacher said.

But the district did see improvements, such as big gain in writing scores. Tolcacher said that even with some declines Prosser students are above average compared to other Washington districts with similar demographics and are toe-to-toe with some of the Tri-City districts.

"Our bilingual kids, the gaps we've closed there are huge," he said.

w Ty Beavier: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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