Washington colleges to let students skip placement exams if standardized test scores are good

This year's high school juniors will have to worry about one less test when they start college, if they do well enough on new standardized tests in the spring.

Washington's public four-year universities and community colleges have agreed to place students who score a 3 or higher on the Smarter Balanced Assessment into college-level math and English courses. That means they won't have to take placement tests as other new college students have had to do every fall before starting classes.

It's great students have the opportunity to skip a test before they can start college, college and school officials said.

But what's more important is the arrangement raises the stakes for standardized tests and puts pressure on students to get their academics in order before they leave high school.

"This is a way of emphasizing that math needs to be taken," said Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins.

High school students are required to take three credits of math and pass at least one of two end-of-course math exams to graduate. Eventually students also will be required to pass math and language arts standardized assessments, starting with the Class of 2019, or current eighth-graders.

Performance on placement tests such as CBC's Compass test has placed many high school graduates in remedial math courses -- classes the students have to pay for but that don't count toward a college degree. That led the CBC board to reach out to school districts to find out what needed to be done to better prepare students.

The agreement from the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges and Council of Presidents means high school and college-level expectations will be aligned, said Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond. That will result in a more seamless transition for high school graduates, who may give more effort on the standardized tests, which are used to evaluate teacher and school performance.

"The motivation for kids is so, so helpful," Bond said.

The arrangement also provides a sort of early warning system, officials said. Because students will take the tests as juniors, they'll have a year before graduation to address areas where they struggle.

College and school administrators are working together to develop a transitional course students could take their senior year if score below a 3 on the assessments. As long as students pass the course, it would allow them to take college-credit math courses, Cummins said.

The system won't be perfect. Students who want to take upper-level math courses right out of high school, such as calculus, will still have to test into those courses, said Jane Sherman, vice provost of academic policy and evaluation at Washington State University.

There's also a risk students who realize they didn't do well on the assessment could be discouraged from trying to attend college, officials said.

But those problems can be overcome or resolved, officials said, and this new approach could lead to greater math proficiency overall.

"All in all, we expect a really good outcome," Sherman said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald