WV state school board OKs revised A-F policy

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

Against opposition from teachers unions and school administrator groups, the West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday approved a revised policy that will give entire schools A-F grades based largely on their students’ scores — and growth in scores — on the statewide Smarter Balanced standardized tests.

No nays were heard in the voice vote, for which Gayle Manchin was the only board member absent. Manchin’s term expired in November and she’s asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to replace her, but he has yet to do so.

Board President Mike Green said the A-F system is not intended to be punitive but rather is meant to be a method to get the attention of low-performing schools and improve them.

The board approved the policy to move toward an A-F system in 2014, but it delayed actually assigning the labels, education officials said, to base them on two consecutive school years of Smarter Balanced tests, which were first given statewide last spring and were given again this school year.

The revised policy approved Wednesday incorporates into the grading system some nonstandardized test measures that are allowed by a federal law President Barack Obama signed in December, and prepares the state to finally begin giving schools the grades this fall.

About 83 percent of elementary and middle schools’ grades will be based on “performance.” The department uses “performance” at those levels to refer to scores or growth in scores on the annual Smarter Balanced test.

The policy says 83 percent also will be the proposed “performance” portion for high schools, although “performance” for that level includes not just Smarter Balanced but “College and Career Ready Indicators,” like the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams.

For elementary and middle schools, the remaining 17 percent comprises attendance and how much schools reduce the percentage of students at risk of dropping out. For high schools, that 17 percent also includes graduation rates. The board has yet to decide important details like how many points on its grading scale would correspond to a certain letter grade.

Board member Beverly Kingery, a former Nicholas County Schools superintendent, said everybody seemed fine with an A-F system in 2013.

“But now that we have to do it, it’s kind of like the saying, ‘Shut the gate, shut the gate, the horse is out, the horse is loose,’ ” Kingery said. “Everybody just thought it wasn’t going to happen.”

Since 2013, West Virginia has adopted the Smarter Balanced exams, and students’ math proficiency rates on them last school year were significantly lower than on the Westest standardized tests that Smarter Balanced replaced.

“West Virginia can choose to use an assessment that is not Smarter Balanced,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, told the board. “And it can also choose not to grade schools on a questionable A-F policy.”

“There are questions that have risen about the accuracy of the testing, there are questions about how well this is going to be understood,” said Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals.

Christy Hovanetz — a senior policy fellow for the nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education — spoke in favor of an A-F system in presentations to the board at its regular meeting and a more than an hour-long meeting before the regular meeting started. Green called her “the most knowledgeable person on this subject that we know.”

Hovanetz showed board members a chart indicating that 17 states have adopted A-F policies — all others, except for Indiana, Ohio, Maine, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, are in the South. She also said it’s reasonable to expect school labels will be based mostly on standardized tests if those tests are aligned to education standards that the state expects students to master.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s board is chaired by former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush and fellow high-ranking Republicans Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Eric Cantor, the former U.S. House majority leader. Also on the board is former Democratic West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton.

When asked if A-F school ratings are meant to promote bringing to West Virginia traditionally conservative “school choice” education changes like charter schools and vouchers, Hovanetz said A-F is about improving student achievement.

“If A-F spurs the community and educators to act in a way that improves student achievement, that’s great,” Hovanetz said. She said that, while school choice is part of her organization’s priorities, that’s not what West Virginia has requested its help with.

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