Letter: State tests are tools, not the whole picture

August 30, 2013 

The latest results of Washington's standardized tests are in, and while it's fine to scrutinize the scores and make comparisons, the reality is this current testing system has been used for a few years and is scheduled to be replaced by yet another assessment program in the 2014-15 school year.

It's hard to get too worked up either way about student achievement when the exams keep changing.

Standardized tests can be a great tool, but their value diminishes when too many variables -- like changing requirements -- come into play. At some point the state needs to quit messing with the system long enough so that some real trends can be accurately documented.

Consistency was part of the idea behind the former (and some would say dreaded) Washington Assessment for Student Learning (WASL) tests. But after 12 years it was scrapped for the High School Proficiency Exams, or HSPEs, and the End of Course exams, or EOC, at the high schools. The Measure of Student Progress, or MSP, is for students in third- through eighth-grades.

That's a lot of acronyms to keep track of. And now the assessment for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is on the horizon.

The new exams have been designed to be more efficient and more cost effective than the WASL, and that's a good thing.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn also has said he'd like to reduce the number of testing days in schools so there is more time for instruction, which also sounds appealing.

But while change is inevitable and improvements are welcome, new exams mean students are caught in a testing transition until the process is well established.

It's not the most ideal circumstance for assessing student progress.

That being said, it's encouraging that 90 percent of the Class of 2013 statewide met all the graduation requirements. Reading scores across the state were up for third- through fifth-graders, as well as for high school sophomores. Math scores statewide were better for fourth- through seventh-graders and fourth-graders also improved a bit in writing.

In the Tri-City area, there were ups and downs from last year's tests. While it would be great to see continued improvement every year in every subject, it's unrealistic to expect there won't be dips along the way.

It might be helpful if longterm trends of a single group of students could be established, rather than only comparing year-to-year data from one grade.

The way it's presented now, this year's fourth-graders, for example, are compared to last year's fourth-graders.

While that comparison might provide some insight, any parent with more than one child can tell you that even in the same household kids can be vastly different.

There also should be a way to break down the data and track a group of kids through high school, especially if the new tests are supposed to be quicker and easier to administer than in years past.

Looking at that kind of longterm trend could be useful in figuring where a group of students are compared to where they have been in the past.

Sure, some students move in and out, but a large majority stay together all the way through school. Perhaps this kind of analysis already is taking place, but those aren't the results initially presented to the public.

Standardized tests are supposed to be a tool so teachers and school administrators can gauge students' strengths and weaknesses.

They need to be consistent enough to give a better picture of student progress.

Let's hope that after this next scheduled assessment change, Washington's standardized tests will be left alone long enough so that in the near future, teachers and students won't have to get used to yet another set of testing requirements.

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