Latest test scores are out. Many Tri-Cities schools struggle while others make gains

The test scores are in for Tri-Cities students and, at first glance, they don’t look good.

At the top end, Richland beat the state average, but more than a third of its students hadn’t mastered English at their grade level.

The lowest overall score was in Pasco, where less than a third of its students knew their grade-level math.

In many ways the tests hide as much as they reveal, local education leaders said as they parsed the newest results from the 2018-19 statewide standardized tests.

Whether it’s the gains those students are making during the year or the issues students bring with them into the classroom, they say the results should be the start of the conversation rather than the end of it.

The state tests the math and English skills of all third- through eighth-graders and 10th-graders using the Smarter Balanced Assessments each spring.

The computerized tests present a student with a problem. If they answer correctly, the next question will be harder. If they’re wrong, the next question will be easier.

You can find out more about the state’s standardized tests on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website. The information includes sample questions.

Looking at trends

Some people look at standardized testing with suspicion, but Pasco school administrator Erich Bolz welcomes it as a way to measure how well the district is doing.

It’s a useful way to measure the inequities that happen in the classroom, he said.

Drone Three Rivers Elementary
Three Rivers Elementary School building off Road 84 just opened in Pasco. The new building with 36 classrooms cost an estimated $27.3 million. Watch a video at: Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

But the district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services doesn’t want it to be the only way to measure success.

“As a professional educator, who is also a parent, I am way more interested if my kid goes to your school if they’re going to make a year’s growth in a year’s time,” he said. “I’m interested in looking at how kids perform based on where they start.”

Kennewick’s Lori Butler agreed with that sentiment.

The assessment scores are just one tool the Kennewick district uses to measure what students need, but it doesn’t show how much progress a student is making, she said.

“We have our children for 13 years, and our goal is to get them to graduation and onto college or a career,” said Butler, the district’s director of assessment and professional development. “It may take them several years for them to catch up.”

School buses (1).JPG
Bob Brawdy/ Tri-City Herald

Statewide, tests results remain stagnant.

Slightly less than 60 percent of students are at grade level in English, and less than half of the students are at grade level in math and science.

“Stability can be a double-edged sword,” state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said in a news release. “On one hand, it means our educational system is maintaining the gains we have made. On the other, it means achievement gaps between student groups are continuing to persist.”

The tests the state uses are among the most challenging in the country, Reykdal said.

The state earned a C-plus in an Education Week survey of states nationwide looking at 39 indicators, including the education of parents, the percentage of students in early childhood education and in school funding.

CLO Walk to School
Lincoln Elementary Principal Tony Langdon, left, leads a celebration of International Walk to School Day and Walk-tober event in 2018. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The stagnant test scores drew criticism from the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. Liv Finne, the director for the Center of Education, argued it shows putting more money into the system does not result in better grades.

Pasco and Kennewick divides

The differences between neighborhoods in Kennewick and Pasco become clearer when you focus in on a school level.

Schools in east Pasco and northeast Kennewick perform worse on the tests than their western counterparts in the Tri-Cities.

For example, more than two-thirds of Livingston Elementary students were at grade level. And while the results aren’t as impressive, students at Markham, Angelou, McGee and Franklin are also ahead of the district average.

Schools on the eastern side of the district, like Captain Gray and Rowena Chess, are on the other side of the spectrum.

The disparity is even more dramatic in Kennewick, where about 80 percent of Amon Creek students are at grade level, compared with Amistad, where fewer than 20 percent are at grade level.

Ridge View, Sage Crest, Cottonwood and Lincoln also are near the top of the class.

That is a reflection of the student population at those schools, according to state’s data.

Schools with a higher percentage of low-income and non-English speaking students tend to perform worse on the tests which are given in English.

Low-income students can face several difficulties that affect their education, including worse health and nutrition, more limited vocabulary, and they can be less hopeful about the future, according an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Students trying to learn English while also trying to understand other subjects can often face a barrier that leads to frustration, according to the Schoolyard blog, which provides tips for teachers.

While the test scores may not look great, both Butler and Bolz are looking beyond the initial scores to how well students are improving.

The new Tapteal Elementary school bulding is on Sunshine Avenue in West Richlandand is Richland School District’s 11th elementary. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The state tracks how students improve compared with their peers who received similar grades.

For example, if a student scored a 75 on a test, the state looks at every other student who scored a 75, and then sees how well they do the next year.

In Pasco, Bolz is looking for students to be better than 50 percent of comparable students, and both Pasco and Kennewick students show they are doing better than their peers.

He pointed to one school bucking the trend: Marie Curie STEM Elementary.

While the test scores at the school are below the average, students are gaining on their peers at a high rate. The largest growth is in the sixth grade, where nearly two-thirds of the students are doing better than their peers.

That’s being accomplished at a school where nine out of 10 students are low income and six out of 10 are learning to speak English.

“When you walk into Marie Curie, whether you’re an educator or a lay person, you notice a different type of educational practice,” he said. “You see kids that are really focused on their growth and taking amazing responsibility for setting their own goals.”

In Kennewick, those success stories are scattered throughout the schools, she said.

There is a misconception that because a school has poor scores that it has poor teachers. That’s not the case, Butler said.

“We were able to put a highly capable program in every school,” she said. “There are gifted students in all of those schools. ... That often doesn’t get measured.”

Above average in Richland

In many ways, Richland remains an outlier compared to its neighbors.

It is the only district in the Tri-Cities to do better than the state average — 62 percent of students were at grade level in English and 50 percent were at grade level in math.

Temporary Tapteal to open
Kindergarten teachers Amber Reynolds, Julie Dockter, Caroline Wittman, Staci Wertenberger and Toni Cuello, from left, hold an informal team meeting in one of classrooms of the new Tapteal Elementary school building in West Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“We are analyzing the results to see what more we can do to help our students grow and meet their goals,” said Ty Beaver, Richland’s communications director. “Smarter Balanced Assessment scores are just one of the ways we measure student success.”

Richland bucks some other trends where dips might be expected. The schools with the largest number of low-income students —Jefferson, Jason Lee and Marcus Whitman — were either slightly above or slightly below the average.

But the two lowest-performing elementary schools, Tapteal and Sacajawea, do tend to have more low-income students, but not as many as other schools.

Administrators and teachers will use the information to reach the students most at risk of falling through the cracks. The district has focused on closing those gaps in recent years.

The district has been in a multi-year process of finding ways to help students who are struggling.

Marathon, not a sprint

Each school district uses its own assessment test to see how students are doing during the course of the year.

They’re given multiple times a year, and become another way the district can more closely look at how well a child is succeeding.

That process is combined with some ambitious goals in Pasco and Kennewick.

Pasco’s Outrageous Outcomes call for every third-grader to be reading at grade level, all ninth-graders to know algebra and be on track to graduate, and for a 100 percent graduation rate.

In Kennewick, the standards are the district’s North Star Goals. Along with wanting students to feel safe and be prepared once they graduate, the district’s reading and algebra goals are similar.

In Pasco, moving toward the goal is something that starts with the administration and works its way down to the classroom level, said Superintendent Michelle Whitney.

For example, a kindergarten teacher can use the test data to see if students are on track to read in the third grade.

It also allows the teacher to group students together who are struggling with similar things.

Improving school performance isn’t something that can happen all at once, Bolz and Butler said. The districts set reasonable annual goals for each of the schools to attain.

“We have to be accountable, but we have to set goals that are attainable year after year,” Bolz said. “If I were to get back into tennis-playing shape, my goal would be to get to 180 pounds, but it wouldn’t be by tomorrow.”

Butler provided some advice for parents who might be concerned when they receive their child’s scores.

“This is only one way to measure what we teach children,” she said. “The more information that we have about the students, the better we can teach them. ... This is not the full picture of what their child can do.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.