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: State testing is required by state and federal laws.

Our assessment system was implemented in response to the state’s Education Reform Law of 1993 (Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1209), which required that the assessment system to:

  • Test all public school students across the state, including students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.
  • Be administered annually in selected grades.
  • Measure performance based on the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs), the state’s learning standards.
  • Report on the performance of individual students, schools and districts.
  • Serve as one basis of accountability for students, schools and districts.

Our state tests also fulfill the requirements of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965. ESEA requires annual assessments in reading and mathematics for students in grades 3-8 and high school. Students also must be tested annually in science in an elementary school grade, a middle school grade and a high school grade. This requirement is fulfilled in Washington by testing students in science in grades 5, 8 and high school.

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: May I refuse to have my child take state tests?
A: A parent may refuse to have his/her child take state tests. However, it is not recommended. A student in grades 3-8 who doesn’t take a state test may miss out on having learning issues identified sooner rather than later. High school students who do not pass state assessments in reading, writing and mathematics (and science for the class of 2015 and beyond), or their approved alternatives, will not graduate.

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.

Currently, students in grades 3–8 take the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP). Two new tests will replace the math, reading and writing portions of the MSP. (Fifth and eighth graders will continue to take the MSP in science.)

Tenth graders now take the High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE) and End-of-Course (EOC) exams for federal and state accountability, and as graduation requirements for reading, writing, mathematics and science. (The biology EOC is a graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2015.) The new, summative high school mathematics and English language arts tests will be administered to 11th graders to measure career and college readiness. It will be up to the Legislature to determine which tests will be used as graduation exit exams.

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 do the new Smarter Balanced assessments take effect?
A: Washington is an active participant in the consortium that designed the Smarter Balanced tests. Voluntary pilot testing took place in 2012-13 and field testing in 2013-14. Full implementation of the Smarter Balanced tests will be in spring 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: Passing scores are determined through a process called “standard setting.” Students must meet a certain performance standard to pass. Setting standards for the MSP, HSPE and EOC exams is a thoughtful and involved process. It incorporates feedback from many people.

First, a “standard-setting” panel for a state testing subject and grade level is convened. Members include teachers, parents and community members representing Washington’s geographically and ethnically diverse population.

The panelists for each content area review Performance-Level Descriptors (PLDs), which are the written descriptions of what students should know and be able to do in that subject and grade. They also look at the test itself to see how many points a student should earn on the test to meet the PLDs.

The panel’s work is done in rounds. After the first round of deliberations, panelists discuss each other’s perspectives and then conduct a second round of review. A third round is done before the panel, as a whole, makes final recommendations.

Next, an “articulation” committee is brought together to ensure the suggested standards relate sensibly to one another across the different grade levels. The articulation committee members represent standard-setting committee members from different subjects and grades. The articulation committee reviews the standard-setting committee’s recommendations and can make its own set of recommendations.

Both the recommendations from the standard-setting panel and articulation 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 MSP, HSPE and EOC exams.

Q: What steps are taken to make sure that the scoring of open-ended items is valid and reliable?
A: The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) uses rigorous methods to ensure that the scoring process yields valid and reliable results. “Valid scoring” means that a scorer assigns the same score to a student response as would be assigned by an expert panel of Washington educators. “Reliable scoring” means that different scorers consistently assign the same score to a student response.

The following quality-control measures are used when open-ended questions are scored on the MSP and HSPE. The reading, mathematics and science portions of MSP, HSPE and/or EOC have multiple-choice and short-answer questions worth one or two points each. Only the writing tests have extended-response questions:

  • Item-by-item scoring: Teams of scorers are trained to score responses to a single, open-ended state testing question and all responses to that question are scored by the team. Once all students’ responses to that question have been scored, the team is trained to score a different test question. This process adds to the scoring consistency, as scorers need only keep a single scoring guide in mind as they score. This approach also protects against scorer biases that could come into play if entire test booklets were scored by a single scorer.
  • Double-scoring: All writing responses in high school are scored twice to verify that scoring is consistent and aligned to the scoring rubrics.
  • Supervisors reread scored student work: In addition to double-scoring, each scoring supervisor rereads an average of 5 percent of the papers from scorers under their supervision every day. If a supervisor discovers that a scorer begins to assign scores that do not match the scoring guidelines, the supervisor consults with the scoring director and together they retrain that scorer, using the original training materials. This on-the-spot checking helps keep the scoring consistent. If a scorer has drifted from the scoring guidelines, the scores he/she has recently assigned are removed and those papers are reinserted into the queue to be rescored. Scorers who prove unable to score consistently after retraining are dismissed from scoring.
  • Blindly inserted validity papers: A “validity paper” is a student response that has been pre-approved by Washington content (reading, writing, mathematics and science) specialists as being a clear example of a score point. Multiple validity papers are blindly inserted into a scorer's assignment of student responses to be scored. Scoring supervisors receive a daily report of how well scorers' decisions matched with the pre-determined score on the validity papers. Any variation from the scoring criteria is addressed immediately.
  • Protocols to handle unique responses: Scorers are trained to only assign a score to student responses that are consistent with the examples provided in training. If a scorer encounters a student response that is unique, novel or otherwise unfamiliar, the scorer seeks advice from the supervisor. If the response is new to the supervisor, the scoring director intervenes. At this point, the scoring director can decide either that the response is merely a nuance of what is already described in the scoring rubric, or that it is truly unique. If the response is a nuance, all the scorers are notified and re-trained on that particular type of response. If the response is one that has not yet been encountered, OSPI content staff intervene and determine what score should be assigned, after which scorers are re-trained.
  • Communication between OSPI and the scoring contractor: OSPI representatives are on site at Data Recognition Corporation facilities during training and scoring to monitor the quality processes and to address any content questions that may surface.

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 are test results reported?
A: Results are reported for individual students, schools, districts and the state according to four performance levels defined by the Washington State Board of Education:

  • Level 4: Advanced (exceeding state standard)
  • Level 3: Proficient (meeting state standard)
  • Level 2: Basic (not meeting state standard)
  • Level 1: Below Basic (not meeting state standard)

Every family of a student who takes a state test receives a score report. 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 student’s results. Students in grades 10, 11 and 12 who take a state test in the spring will get two score reports: One in early June for reading and writing HSPEs, and a second report in September for science and mathematics EOC exams, and a look at school, district and state scores.

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.

Note: Your child’s state testing results should not be the first time you know if your child is mastering the state’s learning standards. In fact, many teachers now grade daily student work using the state's 1-4 scoring scale.

They are also used for school, district and student accountability. At the school and district levels, state tests are used to help determine Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) and close proficiency gaps as a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. At the student level, passing state tests is a high school graduation requirement. Students are given multiple opportunities, if necessary, to pass the tests. Alternatives also are available for students who have attempted but not passed one or more exams. Students also must meet all local requirements for high school graduation.

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.

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: HSPE, EOC, WAAS-DAPE, WAAS-Portfolio or Collection of Evidence. 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. Read the state guidelines. 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 or Section 504 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 and should be documented in a student’s 504 Plan. The team may determine that a student should take his/her grade-level test with or without accommodations, or may be eligible to participate in the Washington Alternate Assessment System.

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 Language Learners (ELL) 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 state testing, ELL students must take annually the Washington English Language Proficiency Assessment (WELPA) in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

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: May we test the online assessment system before we decide to go forward with online testing for the MSP?
A: The registration window will open in mid-November. Demos and online training tools are available for Mac and PC. The registration deadline for online testing is in mid-December.

Q: Will the online software restrict access to other computer applications, such as calculators or spell checkers?
A: The assessment software will lock out access to other applications, making it impossible to open another browser and search the Web while the test is underway.

Q: Is there a maximum number of users that can test on an individual local caching server?
A: Please download the following document for more technical specs on LCS technology: “Preparing for Online Assessments & Evaluating School Capacity” (PDF, 4 pages) (update for 2013 is coming in January).

Q: May we participate in pilot testing for Smarter Balanced?
A: Washington is an active participant in the consortium that is designing the Smarter Balanced tests. This gives us an opportunity to participate in pilot and field testing. Voluntary pilot testing will take place in 2012-13 and field testing will take place in 2013-14. Instructions for how to participate will be provided to district assessment coordinators as soon as they are available. These activities will be in addition to the MSP, HSPE and EOC exams, which are required for accountability and/or high school graduation.

Q: If we participate in the Smarter Balanced pilot, is our district required to have our students participate in the current MSP, HSPE, EOC exams?
A: MSP, HSPE and EOC exams are required for accountability and/or high school graduation. If a school or district participates in pilot testing of Smarter Balanced tests, it is still required to participate in the regular annual state tests.




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