State board OKs lower score on new tests for students to graduate

Students taking the state’s new Common Core-based tests won’t have to prove they are ready for college or post-high school careers to earn a high school diploma.

Instead, students will be able to earn a lower score on the new Smarter Balanced tests in math and language arts and still graduate from high school, the State Board of Education decided Wednesday.

The new graduation cutoff scores aim to address concerns that the new tests are more difficult than the state’s previous high school exit exams. The multi-state consortium that developed the tests designed them to measure whether students are college and career ready, and not necessarily whether students have met the minimum requirements to graduate from high school, state officials said.

Only about 50 percent of high school juniors who took the Smarter Balanced tests in math and language arts this spring met the career and college ready standards, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. And about half of the junior class opted out of taking the tests entirely, OSPI said.

The new tests, which Washington schools administered statewide for the first time this year, are to be phased in as graduation requirements over the next four years.

Scoring a level three or four on the Smarter Balanced tests indicates students are ready to enter college courses. But the state board decided Wednesday that students should still be able to graduate from high school as long as they achieve a mid-level 2 score on each test, or 2548 for language arts and 2595 for math.

Board members said they aimed to set a score that would ensure a similar number of students would pass the new Smarter Balanced tests as passed the state’s high school exit exams in previous years.

But the high number of juniors who opted out of taking the tests in spring – as well as the juniors’ poor performance compared to some of their younger peers – complicated state officials’ efforts to calculate what the minimum scores for graduation should be, especially for the Smarter Balanced math test.

“The problem we have today is we don’t have the data we need,” said board member Holly Koon.

Under the state’s current phase-in plan, students in the class of 2017 and beyond will have to pass the Common Core-based test in language arts to earn a high school diploma, while students in the class of 2019 will have to pass the Smarter Balanced test in math.

Students who fail the tests will still be able to complete an approved alternative, such as submitting a portfolio of work or earning sufficient score on the SAT or ACT, to meet the graduation requirements.

Given the number of juniors that opted out of taking the tests in spring, the board chose to base its graduation cut scores on the performance of more than 65,000 10th graders who took the Smarter Balanced test in language arts earlier this year.

The minimum score the board chose for the English test – 2548 -- would have ensured that about 81 percent of those 10th graders would have met the language arts graduation requirement if the standard were in place in spring. That’s roughly equivalent to the average rate of 10th graders who passed the state’s High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE) in reading and writing over the past three years, according to OSPI.

Since no 10th graders took the Smarter Balanced math test in 2015, and the few juniors who took the math test performed poorly, board members struggled to choose a minimum score for students to satisfy the graduation requirement on the mathematics test.

They settled on a math cutoff score that would be roughly proportionate to the minimum score they set for the language arts test. But the board also passed a motion promising to revisit the math graduation cut score before the start of the 2016-17 school year, after the state has collected additional testing data.

Board member Peter Maier of Seattle noted that there’s plenty of time to recalculate the minimum Smarter Balanced math score. Only students in the class of 2019 – this fall’s incoming freshman – and beyond will be held to that standard for graduation.

“We have several years to work on this,” Maier said. “I would be much more concerned if this were a finality for the class of 2016, rather than the class of 2019.”