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State praises progress by schools on proficiency exams

As most kids around the Mid-Columbia started their new school year Tuesday, state school officials released results of how students fared in last year's standardized state tests.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn announced the results in a news conference, applauding teachers and administrators for keeping scores on the rise in many categories despite deep school budget cuts.

This year saw a whole new type of testing -- end-of-course tests in math. These tests, taken in the year in which a student is enrolled in the first two stages of high school math -- usually algebra 1 and geometry -- replaced the 10th-grade High School Proficiency Exams, or HSPE.

Statewide, students did fairly well in the new tests. Two-thirds of them passed the algebra test and almost three-quarters aced the geometry exam.

Algebra results were expected to be the lower of the two, because it was the mandatory test to take for high school students who hadn't taken the old HSPE, even if it had been years since they took the algebra 1 class.

The geometry exam, however, was taken only by students who took geometry last year.

As they had in previous years, middle and elementary school kids took the Measurement of Student Progress, or MSP, exams. Their math scores were up across the board except in eighth grade, which showed a slight dip.

Reading exam results were mixed. Students in fifth and seventh grade tested higher while other grades stayed flat or declined slightly.

One aspect remained unchanged -- the gap between white and minority students' results. State Deputy Superintendent Alan Burke called the gap "persistent and pervasive."

The two largest groups -- Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites -- were separated by 15 to 20 percentage points in every category. But Hispanics statewide showed the largest improvement in passing rates among the minority groups.

The Tri-City school districts progressed along a similar path as the statewide averages.

Kennewick

School districts received most test results earlier this month but they only a few days ago saw how their students did on the new math end-of-course exams.

In Kennewick, administrators liked what they saw there -- 65 percent of students passed algebra and 74 percent passed geometry. Both numbers are at the state average.

"It was exciting to see how well we did (on these exams)," said Bev Henderson, assessment coordinator.

Kennewick also slightly improved its on-time graduation rate -- to 70 percent districtwide in 2010, still below the state average of 77 percent. Graduation rates are reported with a year delay by the state.

The district's reading scores mirrored the state's, with sixth- and tenth-grade scores inching up and the other grades' results dropping compared to last year.

Math results also were up in several grades, although they declined in seventh and eighth grade.

The demographics in Kennewick remained unchanged from the previous school year, despite enrollment growth. About half of all kids in the district qualify for free lunch -- a measure of poverty -- and just over 10 percent are learning English.

Pasco

Pasco's demographics also remained the same as the year before. Almost three-quarters of its students get free lunch and a third are learning English.

Both factors are known to influence learning and Pasco's lower test scores reflect that, although its results improved over last year.

The district's reading scores are about 10 percentage points below the state average, but have risen across nearly all grades over last year.

The district has long acknowledged that it has a problem getting kids to pass state math exams. It has made math a priority, changing its curriculum and training math teachers, district officials said.

It has paid off, as math results increased in every grade level -- 15 percentage points in some grades.

"I know our teachers and principals will be very pleased to see these results," said Superintendent Saundra Hill. "We plan to continue our math focus this year as well."

Pasco's graduation rate jumped from 64 percent to 75 percent in 2010, although that good news was tempered by new accounting methods. The state this year started factoring in transfers to the district, which could inflate graduation rates.

Using the new method, Pasco's graduation rate remained virtually flat.

Richland

The district with the fewest kids living in poverty boasted the area's best test results. About 30 percent of Richland's kids qualify for free lunch and about 2 percent need to learn English.

Richland beat the state trends -- its scores went up in all grades in reading and math, except for a slight dip in eighth-grade reading.

Richland kids tested above state levels in all categories, except, again, in eighth-grade reading.

Students made strides in math test results, improving by 10 percentage points in some grades.

"We were pretty aggressive to at least get to 'safe harbor' in math," said Mike Hansen, executive director of K-5 education.

"Safe harbor" is a term used by the federal government that means reducing the number of kids who don't meet standards by 10 percent.

Despite the overall improvement in test results, Richland's graduation rate dipped slightly to 72 percent in 2010. It is now just below state average.

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com

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