School officials want to ensure students take exams

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

A new statewide standardized test will replace the Westest this spring, and school officials are considering methods, including punishments, to ensure enough students take it to produce reliable data.

Proposed rules for the state’s new A-F school rating system — which is replacing the Accountability Index that gave schools labels like “success” or “priority” — would drop a school’s grade by one letter if between 5 and 10 percent of students miss the test.

If more than 10 percent of students miss the test, the school would automatically get an F.

The state Board of Education is expected to vote on the rules next week, and until they are approved, state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said she didn’t think it would be appropriate to comment on them — including what exactly being labeled an F would mean to schools.

Board member Lloyd Jackson said he’ll also consider — for possible future rules not to be presented to the board this month — whether students should be required to take the new exam to graduate. But he said he doesn’t want their actual scores to ever be a factor. Standardized testing currently doesn’t count toward students’ grades.

“Clearly, there is a concern on the part of teachers and administrators that some students don’t take these assessments as seriously as much as they’d like them to,” Jackson said, “so their numbers don’t reflect the work that they’ve been doing.”

Jackson discussed the issue with state education officials this week during the school board’s Accountability Committee meeting.

Michele Blatt, chief accountability and performance officer, said schools are technically already required to test all students, but there’s no specific state punishments for non-compliant districts, schools or individual students.

Carla Howe, director of interim accountability and data governance, said research has shown schools sometimes purposefully don’t test traditionally low-scoring groups, like children from poor families, in order to get better scores.

“I don’t know, we just happened to not test the low-performers, so we’ve earned an A!” Howe said.

She said “people get really good at gaming this stuff,” and officials have to accept that and monitor for such cheating.

Jackson said there’s no proposed 100 percent student testing requirement in order to allow leeway for rare circumstances, like sickness that keeps a student from testing. It’s also rare for schools to not currently test 95 percent of pupils or more — only about 1 percent didn’t meet that threshold last school year.Blatt said the “big issue” many states have is parents not allowing their children to take the tests. Ron Duerring, superintendent of Kanawha County Schools, said a small number of parents in the county do refuse to allow their children to take the exam, but he didn’t have an exact figure.

Jon Duffy, the district’s director of counseling and testing, said principals typically schedule meetings with parents who don’t want their kids to participate in order to assuage their concerns. But Duerring said the district ultimately can’t force students to take part, and will schedule separate assignments during testing time for those whose parents still refuse to give permission.

Cordeiro couldn’t say Wednesday whether state law or state school board policy allows local school districts, on their own accords, to require students to take the exams. Duffy said Kanawha schools use various incentives to ensure students take the test and do well, but no schools use punishments.

Cordeiro suggested schools could eventually face financial penalties from the federal government for too few students taking standardized testing to produce reliable data. But she said the major harm is that without sufficient testing, schools won’t know which students are weak in which areas.

“The lack of student data could hurt a teacher’s ability to lead instruction,” Cordeiro said.

The push for ensuring more students take the state’s new exam comes at a time when some Republicans in the newly GOP-dominated state Legislature are opposing the test and the new standards off which it’ll be based. Those standards are based on the controversial Common Core math and English/language arts national standards blueprint.

Sen. Donna Boley, a Pleasants County Republican who is vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced a bill last week that would stop West Virginia from using Common Core-based standards, which the state only fully implemented this school year. The bill also says state tests can’t be used to determine what grades students will receive or whether they can move onto the next grade, and it prevents state universities from denying students admission based only on the fact that they don’t take part in the tests.

The intent language of the bill states that “parents must maintain the right to opt out of state assessments without penalty to the student, teacher, school, school district or state.”

The Department of Education presented the A-F rules to its Accountability and Accreditation Task Force Jan. 13, and Howe said there were concerns voiced about the participation rate penalty. Blatt said about 40 or 45 people attended from the various stakeholder groups, including educators and teacher unions.

Amy Weintraub, a member of the task force selected by the principal of Piedmont Elementary School, which her daughter attended, told the Gazette the exact grading methods described at the meeting confused her. She worries about the exam participation requirement.

Weintraub said schools with attendance issues could be hurt by the requirements, and because low attendance correlates with low socio-economic status, she said she worries the grading system could serve to further demoralize struggling students.

“These grades are an indictment on communities and socioeconomic status as much as they are on student achievement,” she said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.