After a big climb in 1993, test scores in Spokane School District 81 stayed on cruise control in 1994 except for a significant jump in 11th-grade math scores.
Like District 81, most of the county’s school district scores didn’t change that dramatically.
Spokane Superintendent Gary Livingston said the results are encouraging.
“It’s very important for us to look at them,” he said. “It’s very important to take them seriously.”
Livingston said he can’t explain the big increase in 11th-grade math scores and would need to compare them with next year’s scores.
In District 81, the region’s largest, scores for the eighth and 11th grades moved up when compared with the 10 other school districts in the county, but they dropped slightly in the fourth-grade rankings.
Comparisons with the other districts aren’t as important, Livingston said.
He said the tests are important because they allow teachers and principals to focus on the performance of specific classes and students.
“The standardized tests are important benchmarks to have,” he said. “It’s one of a number of measures we need.”
But District 81 is more urban and poorer than the suburban districts, he said. About 50 percent of the students qualify for reduced or free lunches.
In some schools, students move frequently, meaning that the schools test students they didn’t teach, Livingston said.
But poverty doesn’t necessarily produce low scores, the superintendent said. Students with concerned families score higher than those lacking support, he said.
The Tacoma school district, with similar demographics, scored lower than Spokane. The Spokane district scored about 10 points higher than fourth-grade results in Tacoma, 13 in eighth grade and eight in 11th grade.
Mead’s scores this past year dipped slightly in the fourth and 11th grades but increased a bit in eighth grade. The scores are similar to two years ago, said Gary Ferney, Mead’s assistant superintendent.
Central Valley’s fourth-grade scores increased slightly but eighth- and 11th-grade scores dropped slightly.
“In general, we’re improving,” Central Valley assessment coordinator Geoff Praeger said. “The most dramatic improvement has been in mathematics.”
The district’s math scores increased by about 20 points in four years. Praeger credited a new math program for the jump.
Liberty Superintendent Armin Vogt said a new “smart learning” program at the southern Spokane County school district is partly responsible for 11thgrade scores ranking at the top in county school districts for the second year in a row.
Liberty’s fourth-grade total scores increased by 14 points, but eighth-grade scores dropped by 10 points.
That bump is not abnormal, Vogt said. The mean scores in Liberty jump around because of the small number of students in the district, he said.
Liberty has only about 680 students. District 81 has about 32,000 students.
Like Livingston, Vogt said he doesn’t like the emphasis on test comparisons.
“It’s absolutely a crime,” Vogt said. “What I’m saying is: The larger the school system, the (closer) to the mean you become. For schools like Spokane and the Valley, it’s impossible to move very much.”
Washington public schools are required to test students annually in grades 4, 8 and 11 with state-selected multiple-choice achievement tests.
Vogt said he worries that schools gear their courses to the tests rather than new ideas.
“You’re limiting schools and teachers from being innovative because the test ties your hands,” he said.
The MacMillan/McGraw-Hill test used in Washington is one of the most common standardized tests used nationwide.
State testing supervisor Duncan MacQuarrie said the tests are useful but limited.
They test basic skills. They don’t test creativity, problem-solving or critical thinking. They provide a tool that schools can use.
Just mention the McGraw-Hill test to Monty Neill and he’ll sigh.
“It’s approximately as good as the others,” said Neill of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., national nonprofit group in favor of testing reform. “But none of them are any good.”
Standardized multiple-choice tests do not measure anything beyond memorization by rote, he said. The tests are designed to sort out students, he added.
“The whole point is: There’s no immediate or direct information on what the kids know,” Neill said. “If they all know a lot, somebody’s still at the bottom. If they know a little, somebody’s still at the top.”