Westest 2 results have new meaning this year

Published: August 21, 2013 7:48 AM
By Mackenzie Mays

Westest 2 results have new meaning this year
By Mackenzie Mays

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Results from last year's standardized tests are expected to be released this week, but the way educators analyze the data will be brand new.

Because the U.S. Department of Education granted West Virginia a waiver in May to relieve schools of federal rules associated with No Child Left Behind, the latest results from Westest 2 will now be used to classify schools in one of five new designations.

Before, when the state's educators received the test scores, they were looking for one thing: did the school make Adequate Yearly Progress?

The yes-or-no answer was reflective of the school's achievement and could determine the federal funding a school received under the Bush-era law, which passed more than a decade ago.

This year's test results will say nothing about AYP.

"Parents have been accustomed to seeing that 'yes' or 'no' designation. That's no longer the case. This is a fairer system to schools. This is the first year schools get credit for making progress," said Robert Hull, an associate superintendent at the state Department of Education.

Under its own unique accountably system, the state will identify schools as one of five classifications: priority, support, focus, transition and success.

Also, in an unprecedented move, the Department of Education is offering "growth data," which will show parents and teachers how individual students have developed.

"For the first time, parents will see trajectory information -- where they've been, where they are, what they'll have to make in order to improve for the next year," Hull said. "Not only that, but you'll be able to see if your child continues at the rate they are now -- where they are projected to be next year."

Another important change, Hull said, is that the state's most struggling schools -- those designated as priority or support -- were already labeled as such months ago.

Before, schools wouldn't find out the results until right around the start of the school year, which sometimes caused issues.

For example, if Title I schools -- those with a majority of students who qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals -- did not make AYP for the third consecutive year, they would have to allow a School of Choice program to give parents the option to transfer elsewhere.

"You'd have to get parents notice of that, rush around, worry about transportation options. There was a lot of last-minute scrambling for schools, and districts had to make decisions on the fly," Hull said. "This year, they already know. It's not so reactionary."

The state's lowest-achieving schools will now keep those urgent designations for three years instead of being reviewed annually.

"Frankly, it was entirely possible before that the schools were in and out [of assistance from the former federal program] and there was no real way to build capacity for long-term growth," Hull said. "This way, they can truly focus their money on where it needs to be spent."

To allow comparison between past years, the scores themselves won't be different. Starting next school year, though, the Westest 2 will be replaced with a new test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is based on the federal Common Core standards.

The West Virginia Board of Education has defended the new standards in recent months, which have been implemented by 46 states. But critics of Common Core have voiced Big Brother-type concerns that the move will mean the end of state control.

Hull said a public misunderstanding of West Virginia's adoption of a Common Core-based plan hasn't made the transition easy.

"The biggest misconception is, 'Oh they have a waiver so they don't have to be accountable at all.' That's not true -- it's just changed. It's a different level of accountability, and we're still responsible. It's a much more accurate listing of schools," he said.

The state Department of Education is aiming to get the Westest 2 results out to the public by Friday, though teachers have already received the information for their schools.

Though some school districts in the state have returned to class early this year, there's still time for administrators to digest the data," Hull said.

"Typically in the first few weeks, teachers aren't doing a lot of intervention. You're really just getting a sense of where your students are," he said. "Statewide assessments aren't the only piece of information schools use; this is simply the most public. When I was a teacher and a principal, I didn't solely rely on these scores. I looked at grade distributions, results on other assessments and a lot of other information. This is more or less a confirmation that yes, we were right."