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90 percent of seniors passed key statewide testing

Ninety percent of Washington's 12th-graders passed the statewide reading and writing tests before graduating, but state officials said Wednesday that math results show the subject is going to be a major obstacle to graduation for future classes.

This spring, Washington's high school students made their first attempt at a different set of statewide tests called the High School Proficiency Exam. The tests are based on the same learning standards as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, but are shorter and more focused.

Preliminary results for 10th-graders show that 78 percent passed reading and 84 percent passed writing in their first attempts, while 43 percent of 10th-graders passed the math exam.

Kennewick and Pasco school officials still were going over the scores and weren't yet ready to release results from their districts. But officials said the spring scores are comparable to past results. Historically, writing and reading test scores have been higher, with math scores lagging behind.

Richland 10th-graders followed that trend in the spring, with 73.4 percent passing reading, 81.4 percent passing writing and 39.2 percent passing math, according to preliminary results.

The districts still have to go through a detailed process of checking each student's test scores against what's recorded with the state before the results are considered final.

Statewide, 88 percent of 11th-graders now have passed reading thanks to the spring test. Ninety percent have passed writing and 57 percent have passed math in two years of taking the exam.

The head of the Washington State Board of Education issued a strong statement of concern after the testing results were released Wednesday.

"We must put an end to this repetitive cycle of low performance," said board Chairman Jeff Vincent. "The gaps that exist between reading and math can be overcome. The achievement gaps can be overcome. But when you are behind, you have to work even harder to catch up."

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn agreed with Vincent's criticism and said he would be meeting with legislative leaders within the next few months to start making plans for tackling the issues of test scores, the achievement gap among different ethnic groups and graduation rates.

He warned that high school math scores could get worse before they get better, because of a change in the way students will be tested, beginning next year.

The state will be changing to end-of-course exams for algebra and geometry as a replacement for the general math test. Dorn believes the new tests will be more challenging than the high school math exam, which includes a lot of general math along with some algebra and geometry.

And there's an additional problem he has been talking about for the past year: Many of the first students taking the end-of-course exams will take them in 10th grade, years after they completed algebra or geometry in eighth or ninth grade. This issue will disappear eventually, but Dorn worries about next year's 10th-graders.

"I'm not going to push issues under the rug and act like they don't exist. That's not fair to kids," Dorn said. "My job is to be an advocate for students."

The class of 2013 -- this year's ninth-graders -- will be the first required to pass four statewide exams, in reading, writing, math and science. Those students won't take their first high school tests until next year.

Dorn said he was pleased with the state's experiment with online testing for some middle school students. The Kennewick, Richland and Pasco school districts all had at least some middle schools offering online testing this year.

The goal is to have all students testing online by the 2013-14 school year, Dorn said. Grades four and five will go online next year in reading and math, as well as grades five and eight in science. High school online testing will not begin until spring 2012.

Dorn said his main concern remains the passing rate in high school math -- just under 70 percent for this year's seniors -- but about another 20 percent met the graduation requirement by earning two math credits after 10th grade.

"This state has done well with its reading and writing curriculum," Dorn said. "We've got to raise math to that level."

He noted improving math during a time of education budget cuts and increasing class sizes would be difficult.

"We will expect more than 90 percent of the class of 2013 to be proficient in math by the time they reach graduation. I'm not confident that will happen," he said.