June 14, 2011 in News, Region

High school graduation rate improves in Washington

Associated Press Associated Press

SEATTLE — Despite years of state budget cuts for education, Washington high school students continue to do well on statewide tests in reading and writing, and both graduation and dropout rates are improving, state officials said today.

“But the future will hold the key to whether reduced resources, I believe, will have an effect on students in the future,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said.

Starting with the class of 2015 — next year’s high school freshmen — students in Washington will have even higher hurdles to jump to graduate from high school: five statewide tests including two in math and one in science, and more credit requirements.

“While resources are going down to help students meet the standard, the standard is going up,” Dorn said.

Dorn commended Washington students and educators for improving graduation rates over the past three years, despite decreasing state dollars for education.

Course completion continues to be more of a challenge for graduation than passing the statewide exams, but Washington continues to have a dropout problem, he said.

Dropout rates have dropped in every racial group except for Pacific Islander students, who have seen their dropout rates increase over the past few years, but every racial group has a dropout rate above 10 percent. The overall dropout rate decreased from 19.4 percent in 2009 to 17.6 percent in 2010. Final numbers for 2011 are not yet available.

Preliminary results show overall state graduation rates went from 70.4 percent in 2006 to 76.5 percent in 2010. State officials expect the extended graduation rate for the class of 2011 — including kids who make up credits over the summer or during the next school year — will continue to be above 80 percent.

“It’s going to be difficult to sustain the increases in graduation rates” with state budget cuts taking money away from schools, Dorn said.

“We’re going to need the resources for a 21st century education,” he said. Dorn urged government leaders and the public to push for more dollars for education, especially as the economy starts turning around.

He acknowledged, however, that the effect of changes in curriculum, test formats, state academic goals and extra help for students doesn’t show up immediately in test scores, so the improvements being seen this year likely have been in the works for years.

Individual new programs around the state, especially in struggling districts, seem to be showing up in the statewide scores, from online courses for students to retake classes to programs that bring dropouts back to school.

The president of the state’s largest teachers union said the success on statewide tests and improvement in graduation rates shows teachers and support staff are doing a great job, despite cuts in state dollars, larger classes and fewer people to help struggling students.

“Despite increasingly challenging times, we’re helping kids be successful,” said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association. She said she is hopeful but not optimistic about the economy and the chances of continuing to improve in test scores and graduation rates.

“I hope it turns around, but I’m not terribly optimistic that it’s going to. And our kids are going to suffer,” Lindquist said. “If I were I parent, I’d be pretty angry.”

The League of Education Voters, a school advocacy group, has a different take on the relationship between school funding and student achievement.

“We think the fact that we’re getting progress with declining resources shows that districts are becoming more efficient,” said Lisa Macfarlane, the league’s senior adviser. School budget cuts are not a new phenomenon, so this year’s progress comes after years of decreasing dollars and increasing focus on boosting student achievement, she added.

“This progress says everything about the power of high expectations,” Macfarlane said.

Of this year’s 10th graders, more than 81 percent passed the reading test on their first try, nearly 84 percent passed the writing test and about 50 percent passed the science test. Results from math tests will be released in August. The passage rates are above 90 percent in reading and writing for this year’s seniors, who have had multiple chances to pass.

Starting with the class of 2013, students will be required to pass at least one math end-of-course exam. In 2015, they’ll also be required to pass an end-of-course exam in biology.

The High School Proficiency Exam is one of four state requirements for graduation. In addition to passing the tests in reading and writing, Washington students need to earn at least 19 credits, complete a plan for life after high and do a culminating project.

The achievement gap among various racial groups continues, but every group is making some progress, Dorn said. Among year’s sophomores, for example:

—67.9 percent of African American students passed the reading test this year and 74.6 percent passed writing.

—65.4 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Natives passed reading and 70.8 percent passed writing.

—68.2 percent of Hispanic students passed reading and 74.7 percent passed writing.

—63.8 percent of Pacific Islander students passed reading and 76.2 percent passed writing.

—85.1 percent of Caucasian students passed reading and 86.2 percent passed writing.

—83.7 percent of Asian students passed reading and 88 percent passed writing.

—84.4 percent of multiracial students passed reading and 85.9 percent passed writing.

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