KENNEWICK -- This school year's testing season isn't just nerve-wracking for students -- drastic changes to state math exams also are puzzling school district officials, parents and legislators.
School officials say the ill-planned transition to so-called End of Course tests is unfair to students and a logistical challenge for districts, which are struggling to know what skills to emphasize in classes.
A bill making its way through the Legislature would put some of the new requirements on hold to ease the transition to the new tests, but it hit a hurdle Wednesday and now might be stalled.
Last year, students were switched to the High School Proficiency Exam after taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests for 12 years. Both tests were comprehensive.
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This spring, the math tests change again. Now kids are tested separately in algebra and geometry. The tests are intended to be given at the end of the school years in which students take the classes.
The problem is how to transition into the new system.
Traditionally, students take algebra I as freshmen, geometry as sophomores, algebra II as juniors and, if they're so inclined, precalculus as seniors.
The old math exam was given in 10th grade, which means anyone who's a junior or senior now and previously passed that exam already has fulfilled the math graduation requirements.
Anyone in algebra I this year will take the new exam for that course now and geometry next year.
But students who took geometry this year will have to take both math tests in May -- which means they will be asked to remember skills they learned a year ago.
And more and more students are taking algebra and even geometry in middle school to free up time for college-level course work in high school. That means some students will be tested three years after they took the class.
Current juniors and seniors who didn't pass the old exam also have the option of taking the new exams to fulfill their math graduation requirement.
To make things really complicated, students who currently are in the class they are being tested on will take a different exam than those who are taking it a year or more after the fact.
In short -- a whole lot of students ranging from seventh to 12th grade have to take one or two of four possible tests.
'Confusing as heck'
"It's confusing as heck," said Ron Williamson, Kennewick assistant superintendent.
Districts spent months poring over student records to figure out who needs to take which test, he said.
And that may not be the last extra work they will have to put into the tests, as a couple factors suggest a fair number of students won't pass the new exams.
One is the already mentioned delay between learning the material and taking the test. The other is the fact that what's being asked of students in tests now is different from what they learned a year or two ago.
When the state changed the test format last year, it also changed what school officials call "standards" -- particular math skills that students must demonstrate in the exam. It's expected to do so again with the new tests.
"The kids took algebra under the old standards and now they have to test under the new standards," said Dennis Maguire, Pasco associate superintendent. "In my mind, that's unfair."
Math has been a "revolving target," he said. The district just caught up to the last change -- augmenting textbooks and training teachers to make sure kids know everything they need for the test -- even as the next change comes.
In Pasco, where students lag behind state averages in math, officials are putting the greatest effort into dealing with the latest change.
The district will offer special classes next year for those students who didn't pass the test. That means these kids will take two math classes, further cutting time available for subjects that they don't get tested on by the state.
"They'll have fewer choices," Maguire said.
In Richland schools, tutors are available to catch kids up to math skills they learned a year or two ago, said Toni Koller, district assessment coordinator.
Kennewick has no plans for catch-up classes next year, Williamson said. Kids needing to brush up on algebra I will be placed into algebra II classes, which should prepare them for their make-up tests.
Burbank schools would like to offer refresher courses in math next year if it can find money for that, said Superintendent Lou Gates. "But we don't know what the (state) budgets will be yet. We're looking at some big unknowns."
About two months before math testing time, the districts still haven't been told what will be on the tests.
Also unknown is whether the new requirements actually will be enforced.
State changing rules
A bill making its way through the Legislature could change the rules to ease the burden on districts and students.
House Bill 1412 would change graduation requirements temporarily so current freshmen or sophomores only need to pass either algebra or geometry -- not both. After the class of 2014, the system will be caught up.
"We're all hoping that bill goes through," Koller said.
It wasn't supposed to be such a last-minute proposal.
The state's superintendent brought up the issue of transitioning into the new exams more than a year ago, said Chris Barron, a spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. A similar bill failed then.
This time around, the bill passed the House with almost unanimous support -- 96-1.
That broad support gave local school officials hope things would be resolved soon. But that may not be the case now.
The Senate's K-12 Education Committee was scheduled to take action on the bill on Wednesday, but did not get enough signatures from its members for or against the bill, according to committee documents. Members have another month to sign it.
This means the bill is either dead in committee or will become law after students have already registered for their exams.
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org