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Originally published Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Schools' state test results show gains in math, science

While Washington students last year passed state assessment tests at higher rates — particularly in areas of science and math — the majority of districts and schools still failed to meet a federal yearly progress standard that measures student achievement.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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More students in schools across Washington state passed the math and science portions of the state assessment tests this spring, with the state superintendent calling it "an amazing effort" in the midst of tough budget cuts.

Still, the majority of schools and districts in the state failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards for measuring student achievement.

The passing rates in math for students in grades three through seven rose or remained flat, while students at all grade levels made across-the-board improvements in science.

In making the announcements Tuesday, Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction, said year-over-year gains suggest that new learning standards have been clarified and that there is "better alignment between instruction and what kids need to learn.

"We have made math a high priority in this state, so it's gratifying to see the improvement," Dorn said.

The test results released Tuesday were for the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) test for grades three through eight, and the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) for 10th-graders — both shorter tests that two years ago replaced the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL.

Dorn dismissed the suggestion that the state is seeing higher passing rates because the tests have been made easier.

"We didn't dramatically change what a fourth-grader has to know," he said. "I believe the tests are just as tough, just as hard. The difference is they are being tested on what they just learned and there are clear, better standards."

In addition to testing in reading, writing and science, students last year took new end-of-course exams for algebra and geometry and those scores are available for the first time. Students are doing better on these new exams than they did on the cumulative high-school math exam previously offered to 10th-graders.

Students passed the algebra portion at a rate of 66 percent and geometry at 74 percent.

Along with science and math, passing rates for reading and writing tests increased in most grade levels. However, eighth-grade students saw slight declines in passing rates from last year in both reading and math.

Across the Puget Sound region, results varied across subject areas and from district to district and school to school.

Seattle Public Schools, for example, saw year-over-year improvement everywhere except middle-school reading and third-grade math. It outperformed the state average in every subject in grades three through eight, trailing only in math, reading and writing among 10th-graders.

Among Seattle schools that witnessed improvement was Franklin High, where 10th-graders saw increased passing rates in science and writing and an almost 17 percentage point jump in reading.

Principal Jennifer Wiley said students have consistently done well in reading and writing and are now seeing improvements in math and science, as well.

"Students come to Franklin with increasing challenges — whether it is poverty, language barriers or other complexities where students are not performing — and we are breaking those."

And it's not just the total numbers, she pointed out. Franklin "has a higher number of students on free and reduced-price lunches, and we are still beating the district average."

In the Kent School District, middle-schoolers appeared to struggle the most, with declines in the number of students who passed both math and reading. Federal Way School District saw almost identical trends.

Bellevue School District, while far outpacing the state average in every subject area, saw its fourth-graders stumble, with year-over-year declines in the number passing both math and reading. The district saw declines in reading for all grades except third.

The state on Tuesday also announced that the number of schools that failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind standard increased by more than 200 schools to 1,388.

In all, 223 school districts — out of 295 in the state — failed to meet the standard.

To make adequate yearly progress (AYP), a certain percentage of students in a school or district need to pass the state's reading and math tests each year. The results are broken down by ethnic group and special categories, like poverty level, and if one category of students fails to meet its goals, the whole school fails.

Schools that do not meet the goals are placed on a list and, if they receive funding under the federal Title I program, they face increasingly severe sanctions if they do not improve.

By 2014, all states are required to have a goal that all students in all schools pass the reading and math tests.

"Under AYP in 2014, a school or district could have 99 percent of its students at proficiency and still be deemed as needing improvement," Dorn said. "This is a highly flawed law."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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