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Thursday, August 30, 2012 - Page updated at 10:01 a.m.

Wash. students show math, science improvement

By DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP
The Associated Press

Statewide test results released Wednesday show more Washington state students are passing their science and math exams, but reading scores are down in some grade levels.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said a new emphasis on science in earlier grades and end-of-course exams in high school seem to be making a difference.

Some of the most significant improvements were seen in fifth- and eighth-grade science tests. About 66 percent of kids in those grades passed their science exams last spring, while the passing rates in 2011 were 55.7 percent in fifth grade and 61.6 percent in eighth grade.

Reading passage rates fell slightly in third, eighth and 10th grades, and writing pass rates dropped a bit in 10th grade.

Dorn said he was particularly pleased with the passage rates on the high school math and science exams, especially since some of the 10th graders taking these tests took the exam at least a year after they took the class.

This year's senior class is the first group required to pass a math exam to graduate. So far, 78.3 percent have passed a math exam and 74 percent of those students have met all their state testing requirements.

The problem, Dorn said, is that some seniors still need to pass more than one test. Some of those same students also do not have the credits they need to graduate, he added.

Dorn notes that the numbers are most stark among children from various ethnic groups, who also have higher drop-out rates.

"We're losing half of our Native American students, and we must do better," Dorn said.

That will take more money or a redistribution of dollars to pay for programs that give extra help to the kids who need it, Dorn said. He noted that districts like Pasco and Everett are spending some of their money on "graduation specialists" to work one-on-one with students to help them stay in school and work toward graduation.

For the 20 percent of Washington students who aren't getting a high school diploma within five years of entering high school, staying in school is the key, Dorn said.

"If we can keep kids in schools, if they stay with us, they graduate," he said, adding that 98 percent of the students who stay in school until their 12th grade year will earn a diploma that year or the next.

Dorn said the barriers to graduation go beyond academics to health problems, family issues and transportation. An upcoming challenge is the increasing number of tests high school students will need to pass before graduation.

The class of 2015 - this year's sophomores - is required to pass two high school math exams, plus science, reading and writing tests. Soon, the Legislature will need to decide whether to adopt two 11th-grade tests that will go with the new national "common core" academic standards Washington has adopted.

Dorn said he will make a recommendation to the Legislature on this issue later in the fall.

The president of the state's largest teachers union says more tests are not what Washington students need.

"I think most teachers would tell you we do too much testing right now and the thought of expanding that is the wrong way to go," said Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist.

She agreed with Dorn that the state should focus on graduation rates and spending more money on classroom help for kids, not on test administration.

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Contact Donna Blankinship through Twitter at https://twitter.com/dgblankinship.

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