Frequently Asked Questions about State Testing
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State Testing

Frequently Asked Questions about State Testing


Smarter Balanced Assessments


Scoring & Reporting

Special Populations

Technical FAQs for Districts


Q: Why is state testing required?
A: School districts and communities are different across the state. Families have the the right to know how their child is progressing toward college and career readiness. And districts need to know if the curriculum they've chosen teach their students to the state learning standards is working, or if they should make adjustments.

State testing is required by state law (RCW 28A.230.095) and federal law (Elementary and Secondary Education Act).

Q: Are students required to pass state tests to graduate from high school?
A: Students are required to pass state tests, or their approved alternatives, to graduate from high school. They also are required to fulfill other graduation requirements.

Q: What happens if I refuse to have my child participate in state testing?
A: Test refusals affect students, schools, and districts in different ways:

  • Students in grades 3-8: Test results help families know if their child's learning is on track, or if extra help is needed. Some school districts use state test results to determine a student's eligibility for special programs, like accelerated learning opportunities. Please contact your local district for more information.
  • Students in high school: High school students must pass state assessments, or their approved alternatives, to be eligible to graduate. High school students who earn a 3 or 4 on Smarter Balanced may avoid further placement testing and costly remedial courses upon acceptance into college, university, or community and technical college. Read more about this option.
  • Schools and districts: Test refusals penalize schools and districts. Students who don't test are counted among the number of students who don't meet standard. This is reflected in the Accountability Index. Schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests are not eligible for any state or federal awards or recognitions.

Q: Are private- and home-school students required to take state tests?
A: Private- and home-school students are exempt from state testing, but some private- and home-school students do choose to take the exams and are welcome to do so. Students who want a diploma from a Washington public high school must complete all state and local graduation requirements.

Smarter Balanced Assessments

Q: What are “Smarter Balanced” assessments?
A: With the transition to the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts, our assessment system has changed. New, online tests, called “Smarter Balanced assessments,” will measure students’ learning, including the critical-thinking and problem-solving aspects of the new standards. Results from these tests not only will allow accountability for schools and districts, but also will allow states to be compared to each other in a fair system. 

See for more information about which tests are administered at which grade levels.

Q: Will the Smarter Balanced assessments cost more money?
A: Compared to our most recent years of testing, switching to the Smarter Balanced system will save our state about $6M per year. We also get more out of the system for use at the schools and districts (interim assessments and access to the Digital Library). Over time, the amount saved should rise as we move away from some of the current exit exam formats, like the EOC exams.

Q: When did Washington students start taking the Smarter Balanced assessments?
A: Washington is an active participant in the consortium that designed the Smarter Balanced tests. Our students have been taking the tests since 2015.


Q: What subjects are covered on our state tests?
A: State tests are based on the K-12 learning standards. Students are tested in English language arts, math, and science.

See for more information about which tests are administered at which grade levels.

Q: Who writes our state testing questions?
A: Washington educators write our science test items, with the support of OSPI and nationally recognized content experts. Washington educators review final items, as well as the data generated from pilot testing. Test items are also reviewed by a state-level bias and sensitivity committee.

Educators from Washington and many other states write our ELA and math tests, with the support of nationally recognized content experts. Educators from Washington and other states review final items, as well as the data generated from pilot testing. Test items are also reviewed by a nationally representative bias and sensitivity committee.

Q: What types of questions appear on state tests?
A: The Smarter Balanced assessment system includes a variety of item types:

  • Selected-response items prompt students to select one or more responses for a set of options.
  • Technology-enhanced items take advantage of computer-based administration to assess a deeper understanding of content and skills than would otherwise be possible with traditional item types.
  • Constructed-response items prompt students to produce a text or numerical response in order to collect evidence about their knowledge or understanding of a given assessment target.
  • Performance tasks measure a student’s ability to integrate knowledge and skills across multiple standards. Performance tasks will be used to better measure capacities such as depth of understanding, research skills, and complex analysis, which cannot be adequately assessed with selected- or constructed-response items.

Check out the Smarter Balanced practice tests to see these item types in action.

Released items are also available for the science tests (MSP and EOC) and math tests (EOC), which include multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

Q: Are state testing performance standards reset each year?
A: Once the Washington State Board of Education adopts a set of standards, the state carries that expected level of performance from year to year. Each year, a new edition of the test is developed. Most of the questions on the test are new, but some have appeared in previous years. The repeated items are called “anchor” items. They are used to link the performance on one year’s edition of a state test to earlier editions. This procedure is called “equating.” Equating the current year’s state test to state tests given in previous years makes comparing yearly results fairer.

Q: What steps are taken to ensure that state testing questions do not contain cultural bias?
A: Every state testing question goes through extensive analysis by a Bias and Cultural Fairness Committee of specially trained educators and community members before it is included on the test. Each question also is given a trial run, or is “piloted,” with students to determine if the question poses special difficulty for students from different backgrounds.

Scoring & Reporting

Q: What is a “good score” on our state tests?
A: A student’s performance on state tests is reported using scale scores. These scores are used to place the student into one of four levels:

(scale scores)

Smarter Balanced
(scale scores)

Level 4

Advanced (exceeding state standard)

Thorough understanding of/ability to apply skills

Level 3

Proficient (meeting state standard)

Adequate understanding of/ability to apply skills

Level 2

Basic (not meeting state standard)

Partial understanding of/ability to apply skills

Level 1

Below Basic (not meeting state standard)

Minimal understanding of/ability to apply skills

Q: What does it take for a student to do well on state testing?
A: Students do well on state tests when they come to class regularly and do their schoolwork. It’s also important for educators to use curricula that emphasize the state learning standards and regularly ask students to think, communicate and solve problems. “Drill-and-kill” and fill-in-the-blank “test prep” exercises a few weeks before taking the test are not effective.

Q: Who scores our state tests?
A: Only professional scorers are hired to hand score written responses from our tests. A professional scorer has a four-year degree, most often in the content area they are scoring or a related content area. OSPI contracts with American Institutes for Research and Measurement Incorporated to hire, train, and monitor the scoring of the tests. Scorers must continually and consistently meet criteria for accuracy and reliability. 

Q: How are student responses scored?
A: Multiple choice and completion items are machine scored. Short answer and essay responses are scored by professionally trained scorers.

Q: How are passing scores determined?
A: Achievement-level setting, also known as standard setting, is the process for establishing one or more threshold scores on an assessment, making it possible to create categories of performance. Through a series of online and in-person activities, educators, parents, and community leaders help ensure the assessments are based on fair and rigorous expectations for students. Typically three threshold scores are set, establishing four levels of performance including proficiency (passing).

For more information on the achievement-level setting process used on the Smarter Balanced assessments, see the Smarter Balanced Achievement Levels page. A very similar process has been followed for determining the threshold (cut) scores on the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) and the End-of-Course (EOC) exams.

The recommendations from the achievement level-setting panels and cross-grade review committee are forwarded to the Washington State Board of Education for review and adoption. Once the Board decides which recommendation to adopt, that is the performance a student must achieve in order to "meet standard" or pass the exams.

Q: What steps are taken to make sure that the scoring of open-ended items is valid and reliable?
A: Open-ended items are scored by professional scorers trained according to strict protocols. Scorers must then pass a qualifying test before being allowed to score an item or set of items. In addition to the training and qualifying processes, the validity and reliability of scoring are monitored throughout the time of scoring. Monitoring methods include double-scoring, read-behinds by scoring supervisors, and the insertion of pre-scored papers called validity papers used to monitor scorers. For more detailed information on item scoring, see the Technical Reports posted each year.

Q: Is a listing of school and/or district state testing scores available?
A: The state has an extensive website for the public to view all elements of state testing at Washington State Report Card.

Q: How — and when — are test results reported?
A: Results are reported for individual students, schools, districts, and the state.

Schools can access student scores, electronically, just a few weeks after their students take the tests.

Every family of a student who takes a state test receives a paper score report. These final reports, with statewide results, are available by September. Each school/district decides how families will receive this report (e.g., mail, parent/teacher conference). Check with your school or district to find out how you will receive your child's results.

Q: How are state test results used?
A: State test results are used to make improvements in teaching and learning. Parents, students, and educators use the results to:

  • Follow student progress.
  • Identify strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in curriculum and instruction.
  • Fine tune curriculum alignment with the statewide standards.
  • Identify students who may need additional help.

Test results are also used for school, district, and student accountability:

Q: May I view my child’s test booklet?
A: Parents/guardians may request to review their child's test booklet. See state guidelines and forms at See Your Child's Test.

Q: May I appeal my child’s score?
A: Parents/guardians may only appeal a score on a high school assessment that is required for graduation. A score appeal results in OSPI review of particular scoring errors, such as errors on open-ended items, incorrect score calculations, mistakes affecting erasures, test labeling, and lightly marked bubbles on multiple-choice items. Further information and forms are available at Appealing a High School Testing Score. An appeal form will be provided when the parent/guardian reviews the test.

Special Populations

Q: How do students receiving special education services or students with Section 504 Plans participate in state tests?
A: A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team must determine annually how a student with disabilities will participate in state testing in each subject scheduled for assessment. This information must be documented in a student’s IEP. The team may determine that a student participate in the regular, on-grade level test with or without accommodations or determine the student participate in the on-grade alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards, the Washington – Access to Instruction & Measurement (WA-AIM).

Students with a 504 plan are expected to participate in state and federal testing on-grade level but may use universal tools and designated supports found in the Guidelines on Tools, Supports & Accommodations to assist with accessing the assessment so they can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. These tools and supports should be documented in a student’s 504 Plan.

For high school students looking to meet their assessment graduation requirement, graduation alternatives are also available. Guidelines to assist IEP and 504 teams in making assessment decisions are available in the Guidelines for Participation and Testing Accommodations for Special Populations in State Assessment Programs. For more information about the state’s Alternate Assessment program, please email

Q: How do students with limited English proficiency participate in state testing?
A: All students who are English Learners (EL) must participate in all state testing scheduled for their grades regardless of the number of years they have been in the U.S. The only exception is students who are in their first year of enrollment in U.S. schools. These students are not required to participate in reading or writing tests, but must take the mathematics and science exams.

In addition to participating in state testing, ELs must take the ELPA21 annual assessment of English language proficiency. This is an online test assessing language proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Q: How will the Smarter Balanced assessments affect students receiving special education services and English language learners?
A: The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) works with teams of national experts to develop a balanced assessment system accurately measures student progress and growth toward college and career readiness.

The Students with Disabilities Advisory Committee is comprised of national experts in learning disabilities, assistive technology and accessibility and accommodations policy. The English Language Learners (ELL) Advisory Committee is comprised of national experts in ELL assessment, bilingual education and language acquisition. These committees will provide feedback to Smarter Balanced staff, work groups and contractors to ensure that the assessments provide valid, reliable and fair measures of achievement and growth for students with disabilities and ELL.

Technical FAQs for Districts

Q: What are the specifications on the bandwidth requirements to administer the online tests?
A: Please download the Technical Specifications Manual for Online Testing For Technology Coordinators (Word, 43 pages) for connectivity requirements.




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   Updated 9/29/2017

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