Data Spotlight: The White-Black-Hispanic Graduation Gaps in Washington. Are the Gaps Really Narrowing?

An October 19 Huffington Post story headline reads, “Graduation Rate Gap Between Black And White Students Is Closing In Most States” and the U.S. secretary of education states “The hard work of America’s educators, families, communities and students is paying off, particularly after several years of intense work by educators transitioning to new, higher standards. This is a vital step toward readiness for success in college and careers for every student in this country.” The graduation gap between White-Black and White-Hispanic student groups in Washington declined from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014. In addition, the On-Time Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rates (ACGR) for each of the student groups increased for the same time period. This is news to celebrate, but what follows is the rest of the story.

Over the five most recent years, the On-Time ACGR graduation rates for the White and Black/African American student groups declined by approximately two percentage points which represents a 2.4 and 3.1 percent change respectively (Table 1). The ACGR did in fact increase from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014 but the five-year trend shows a net decline (Figure 1). Over the two most recent years, the White-Black/African American graduation gap declined by approximately 1.3 percentage points but the five-year change indicates a gap increase of approximately 0.2 percentage points. The five-year change represents an increase of 1.9 percent.

Table1 On-Time (4-Year) ACGR for White and BlackAfrican American student groups

Figure 1 On-Time (4-Year) ACGR for White and BlackAfrican American student groups

The On-Time ACGR graduation rates for the White and Hispanic/Latino student groups declined over the five most recent years by approximately one to two percentage points. This change represents a 2.4 and 1.9 percent decline respectively (Table 2). The ACGR increased from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014 but the five-year change shows a net decline (Figure 2). Over the two most recent years the White-Hispanic graduation gap declined by approximately 0.5 percentage points but the five-year change indicates a gap increase of approximately 0.6 percentage points. The five-year change represents a graduation gap decrease of approximately 4.7 percent.

Table 2 On-Time (4-Year) ACGR for White and HispanicLatino student groups.

Figure 2 On-Time (4-Year) ACGR for White and HispanicLatino student groups.


The On-Time ACGR declined for all three student groups in Washington for the classes of 2010 through 2013 and showed small increases for the class of 2014. The White-Black/African American graduation gap is large and virtually unchanged from five years ago. The White-Hispanic/Latino graduation gap is large but slightly smaller from five years ago. If the current gap reduction rate (for the White Hispanic/Latino graduation gap) of 0.15 percentage points per year is maintained, nearly 90 years will be required to eliminate the gap. Clearly, there is still much work to do.

The State Board of Education collaborated with partner agencies to complete the December 1, 2014 report for the Legislature on the Statewide Indicators of Educational System Health. The full report includes recommended reforms to improve educational outcomes that include high school graduation.

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State Board of Education establishes graduation scores on Smarter Balanced Assessments

Dear Stakeholders:

As you may know, at its August 5th meeting, the State Board set the minimum scores required to earn a diploma on state assessments, as required by law. We appreciate those who have provided input and feedback to the Board at meetings and community forums. The adopted scores and supporting details can be accessed here.

The Board followed through on its equal impact philosophy, adopting a mid-Level 2 score requirement for the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessment (scale score: 2548), and followed the same philosophy for the Math End-of-Course exams. The SBAC math score (2595) was set to be commensurate with the ELA requirement. These minimum scores are just a little more than half way up the Level 2 scale; about 60% of the way between Levels 2 and 3.SBAC SCores

The Board wanted me to help explain their decision to you all, and emphasize a few points we can all work on together for the betterment of students.

First, the Board wants to emphasize that Level 3 remains the goal for all students on the new (SBAC) assessments. A Level 3 score represents a career and college-ready score for our students. The Board wishes – indeed expects – all students to eventually be able to achieve this level of proficiency. Although the board has set a transition standard at a rate below Level 3, this was done to ease the transition for our system and demonstrate fairness to students. It was not done to compromise or confuse our ultimate goal.

We have every reason to believe that students will respond to the Level 3 challenge. Over 70 percent of 10th graders achieved a Level 3 this year – exceeding earlier predictions – and we know our students are capable of much more. The Board has already indicated that it will revisit this issue frequently and may move the minimum score requirement to a Level 3 in the near future. The Board believes that emphasizing a Level 3 score as the goal now will help ease that transition when the time comes.

Second, as exciting as the 10th grade results were, the results from juniors on the SBAC were perplexing. Fewer than half of juniors took the assessment, and those who did were greatly surpassed in achievement by their sophomore counterparts. The sophomores outperformed the juniors to such an extent that it is obvious that something is wrong. As a result, the Board was limited in its ability to use this data to set scores for the math SBAC.

As a system, we need to strategize about ways to communicate with students about the 11th grade assessment, and provide the proper encouragement and incentive for students to do their best, even prior to its requirement for a diploma. We should continue to emphasize the valuable information SBAC gives them about their level of preparedness for post-secondary education, what corresponding classes they can take as seniors to improve their readiness, and the potential it offers to avoid expensive remedial coursework at community and four-year colleges. A participation rate of less than 50 percent on a state assessment is a problem of practice we can all work on together.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while these assessments are important to our goals, but they are not the goals themselves. There is a difference between taking these assessments seriously, and letting a test define a student. No test defines a student. Kids are complex, hopeful, and individual wonders. Students who score at Level 1 can, with hard work, be successful in college and career. They should be reminded that many others have before them. A well-rounded student who is truly “career and college-ready” is more than simply proficient in Math and Language Arts. Let’s acknowledge the important role that SBAC assessments play in career and college-readiness, without letting them become the definition of career and college-readiness. Kids are so much more.

Thank you for partnering with us. We can do great things together. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write to us.


Ben Rarick

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Student Voices – Smarter Balanced

The State Board of Education’s student members, Madaleine Osmun and Baxter Hershman, took Smarter Balanced Assessments last year. Now, see what they thought!

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Washington State Achievement Index: Recognition and Improvement

Each year, the State Board of Education and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction analyze school performance through the Washington State Achievement Index. In addition to the federal Annual Yearly Progress measure, it’s the only statewide school accountability system recognized by both the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Board of Education.

The Achievement Index measures student proficiency in math, reading, writing and science, student growth, and college and career readiness (through high school graduation rates). It identifies high-performing schools for recognition and low-performing schools for support. The Index emphasizes improvement and recognition, not punishment.

What doesn’t it do? It doesn’t assign letter grades to schools.

The State Board of Education does not issue letter grades to schools, ever. Such an approach oversimplifies school data, and it doesn’t do justice to school communities working hard to serve students in a number of areas.

If you’d like a complete picture of how a school performed in 2013-2014, check out the Washington State Achievement Index.

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Anatomy of the Biology End-of-Course Requirement

The 2015 legislative session will be noteworthy in history for a number of reasons. Significant investments in K-12 education (and possibly a looming Supreme Court response). A transportation package. Tuition cuts at our state’s public universities.

Another reason it might be noteworthy is the shift it foreshadows in science assessment and high school graduation requirements in our state.

After nearly six months of debate, the legislature finally settled on a one word change in the statute in SB 6145. The effect is to delay the use of the Biology End of Course (EOC) as a high school graduation requirement for the classes of 2015 (retroactively) and the class of 2016. The Class of 2017 and beyond, however, still must meet the requirement.

The State Board of Education has been asking the legislature to reevaluate using biology as a science assessment since October. So we think the legislature did the right thing… but only sort of.  The Board would prefer the state end the use of Biology EOC as a graduation requirement permanently.

A temporary suspension of biology suggests that the main problem is that not enough kids pass the Biology EOC. The assumption seems to be that if we give them more time (in this case, 2 more years) they ultimately will. This thinking is evident in the intent section of the bill, as well as the budget note language included for the modest investments that were made for math and science professional development.

The pass rates for Biology EOC are indeed a problem, but they are not the main problem. The main problem is that the biology exam is the wrong test to require for high school graduation.

We should be intentional about what we assess, and why. And we shouldn’t require a test for graduation simply because it’s what we have at the time, and we don’t have a better one to replace it. Rather, our focus should be on the positive ways in which assessments can reinforce accountability for standards in those content and skill areas the state highly values for its graduates. The goal, always, is to make all students career and college-ready.

The problem is that the time and resources being deployed in our system toward the biology EOC assessment is considerably out-of-sync with the relative importance of that test for what it means to be college and career ready in science. The state’s recently adopted next generation science standards (NGSS) are our road map for what we want students to know and be able to do. Biology is important, but ultimately just one part of those comprehensive standards. Is retaking the biology EOC three times an important part of a student’s journey to college and career readiness? Probably not.

Meanwhile, as a system we await the development of a new assessment that is aligned to the NGSS standards. Such an assessment is under construction and might be available preliminarily in the 2017-18 school year. Thinking ahead, the legislature may not want phase in a new science assessment for students mid-way through their high school career. If they stick with that practice – and they probably should – then the assessment could conceivably replace the Biology EOC as a graduation requirement for students in 8th grade that first year, 2017-18. They would be the class of 2022. So, absent additional legislative action, we are still potentially looking at six or more graduating classes for which the Biology EOC requirement remains.

Ultimately, tests should be few. And they should be chosen carefully. Those tests that are required should directly reinforce the breadth of our state content standards. Our newly implemented Math and English language arts assessments are fine examples of that. The Biology EOC is not.

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