State, federal changes leave questions about future of WV education

Congress passed a bill earlier this month reducing federal education regulations giving states more flexibility in how they holds school systems accountable. West Virginia Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has formed a commission to study and suggest changes to end-of-year standardized testing.

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

This month Congress passed a bill reducing federal education regulations and the West Virginia Board of Education voted to alter the state’s current K-12 standards and greatly reduce standardized testing, and more big changes could be coming to Mountain State education.

But a new commission’s discussions on one possible area of change — standardized testing — won’t be open to the media or the wider public.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama recently signed after both houses of Congress passed it with wide bipartisan margins, will give the state more flexibility in how it holds its schools and school systems accountable. And State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has formed a commission to study and suggest changes to what’s currently a big part of West Virginia’s accountability system: end-of-year standardized testing.

State education officials say the meetings of the 25-member commission won’t be public. Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel said the group has about 25 to 30 members — including parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, local school board members, lawmakers and representatives from higher education and the governor’s office — but state Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said the members’ names will only be released when the group makes its final recommendations, likely this spring.

“It’s really a working session and there’s nothing to report out at this point,” Anderson said.

Just like its unpopular predecessor, No Child Left Behind, the new federal law requires that the state give annual standardized tests to practically all students in reading and math for grades three through eight and one grade in high school. But West Virginia currently goes beyond the requirement by testing grades nine, 10 and 11 in high school.

In a change from No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act will allow the use of the ACT or SAT in place of West Virginia’s standardized test in high school, which is currently a Common Core standards-aligned exam called Smarter Balanced.

Kanawha County school board member Ryan White, who is also on the commission studying testing, said it seemed like there was a consensus among the committee at its first meeting this month that the state should get rid of Smarter Balanced in general and nix standardized tests in ninth and 10th grades.

“The consensus is Smarter Balanced doesn’t really measure what kids are supposed to be learning,” White told fellow Kanawha school board members during a meeting last week.

In an interview with the Gazette-Mail, he said he expects the commission, at its next meeting, will look at using the ACT in high school, something he’s “very interested” in. He also wants to allow counties to choose whether they want to keep testing in ninth and 10th grades.

“I would like to give [school] districts more flexibility in general, and it seems like that’s what this federal law is looking toward,” White said.

Christine Campbell, a commission member and president of West Virginia’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in messages to the Gazette-Mail that there was definitely consensus that members need more information on available assessments, but she doesn’t think that indicates consensus on “one test or another.”

“The task force members agreed that testing should not be the driving force of instruction but a guide for instruction,” she wrote. “We also agreed that testing should be meaningful to students and that multiple measures are necessary to truly assess student ability.”

The teachers union president said her goal on the commission is to “encourage a recommendation that will truly support teaching and learning, not test and punish,” and said too much time spent on testing is interfering with teaching kids “how to solve problems, create innovative solutions or become a strong workforce.”

The commission only has the ability to make recommendations to the state school board, which has the ultimate authority to make testing changes. Martirano has said he hopes the commission will provide the recommendations by the end of this school year. He has also said there will be a study to determine whether Smarter Balanced is able to accurately gauge whether students are learning West Virginia’s new standards, which have changes from the Common Core national standards blueprint.

When asked if there was already a consensus to move away from Smarter Balanced, Daniel noted there’s been only one meeting.

“So there’s a lot of discussion,” she said. “People are doing some reading and research right now.”

The state still plans to give the Smarter Balanced tests this spring and publicly release the new A-F grades of schools and counties by November 2016. The A-F system will replace the past Accountability Index that gave schools labels like “success” and “priority.”

The state school board didn’t apply the grades this school year. Officials said the portion based on students’ improvement or drop in test scores needed to be determined by two consecutive years of the Smarter Balanced test, which was first given last school year, instead of prematurely trying to gauge student growth by comparing Smarter Balanced testing last school year with results from the prior year’s Westest. The Westest math and English language arts exams were abandoned when the state began using Smarter Balanced.

Following the Every Student Succeeds Act’s passage and its added flexibility, Daniel said what the A-F grades will actually be based on is currently being discussed. According to the new federal law, students’ proficiency on standardized tests must still be a “significant” part of the state’s accountability system, but she said significant isn’t defined. Anderson said that while the state’s past system was based on test scores, student improvement in those scores and, at the high school level, graduation rates, the new law requires states to use “multiple measures” that can also include attendance, “school climate” and other factors.

Daniel said the federal law still requires that at least 95 percent of students in each school take the standardized tests, but it now allows states to determine what the consequences will be for schools that don’t meet that threshold. She said states can even choose to have no consequences. Previously, not meeting the 95 percent threshold could’ve led the federal government to withhold funds for schools, though The Associated Press reported in April that never occurred.

In general, Daniel said there’s added flexibility for how states must handle poorly performing schools. She said the education department is also re-examining teacher evaluations. The new federal law no longer requires any part of the evaluations to be based off standardized test scores, and before the law passed, the state school board had approved delaying using the tests in evaluations more than once.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.