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2 percent of kids didn't take Smarter Balanced; 'refusals' an issue in Wayne, Tucker

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2 percent of kids didn't take Smarter Balanced; 'refusals' an issue in Wayne, Tucker
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Only about 2 percent of eligible West Virginia students didn’t take the state’s standardized tests in math and English/language arts last school year, according to the state Department of Education, suggesting the Mountain State largely avoided the Common Core exam “opt out” movement seen in other states.

West Virginia also reported 98 percent statewide participation rates in the 2013-14 school year, when the standardized exams weren’t aligned to the controversial Common Core math and English/language arts standards that more than 40 states have adopted.

Just three out of West Virginia’s 55 counties — Tucker, Wayne and Wetzel — saw below 95 percent student participation rates last school year on the exams, said department spokeswoman Kristin Anderson, meaning the federal government may restrict how those three school systems use federal funding.

The U.S. Department of Education didn’t return the Gazette-Mail’s request for comment Thursday on the possibility of such penalties. The Associated Press has reported that school districts can have federal dollars withheld for not meeting the 95 percent threshold, but the U.S. education department told the AP it has never done so.

Although Anderson said parameters for the state’s upcoming A-F school and county grading system are still being finalized, she said the three counties won’t receive automatic Fs for missing the 95 percent threshold.

Tucker had the lowest participation rate last school year, at about 77 percent in both subjects, and Wayne and Wetzel both had 93 percent participation rates in both subjects. Kanawha County had about a 98 percent rate in both subjects, and Putnam County had 97 percent participation.

A movement to “opt out” of Common Core-aligned tests has affected other states. The New York Times reported that one out of five New York state students, more than 200,000, didn’t take Common Core-aligned tests this year, and last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a Common Core Task Force to “review and reform” the standards in his state

Not counting the 391 students who were exempt for various reasons — including medical issues — there were about 180,600 West Virginia students in grades 3-11 who were eligible to take the tests.

In math, about 176,600 students took it, for a 97.8 percent participation rate, and in English/language arts, 176,500 students took it, for a 97.76 percent participation rate.

The vast majority of Mountain State students took the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced test; state education department officials have said about 2,500 took the West Virginia Alternate Assessment, which is given to special education students.

About 7 million students in 18 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and select schools within the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs all took Smarter Balanced exams last school year, the first operating year for the test after two years of preliminary runs.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of two testing groups, the other being the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that received Race to the Top grant money from the Obama administration to develop the Common Core-aligned tests.

While the West Virginia Department of Education urges students to take the Smarter Balanced tests, Sarah Stewart, the department’s director of policy and government relations, said the agency doesn’t suggest punishing students for refusing to take the tests. Counties are allowed to make disciplinary decisions.

Of the roughly 4,000 eligible students who didn’t take the tests, the state education department’s report only classifies 1,400 as test refusals.

“We call them refusals, because ‘opt out’ implies there is an option, and there is no option in our eyes,” Anderson said.

She said other reasons eligible pupils might not have taken the tests include chronic absenteeism and students not taking make-up exams.

She said the 1,400 test-refusal number represents those students who either said they weren’t going to take the tests or those for whom parents called or sent in notes saying they weren’t allowed to take the tests. There could be others out of the 4,000 eligible students who didn’t take the tests who might have been avoiding them but didn’t make their intentional refusals known.

Wayne County, where Spring Valley High School made headlines for a large “opt out” movement, had the state’s highest number of known refusals: 309 for English/language arts and 312 for math.

Wayne Superintendent Sandra Pertee didn’t return the Gazette-Mail’s calls Thursday. Neither did officials from the central school system office of Putnam County, which had the second-highest known refusals in the state: 171 for English/language arts, 180 for math. Kanawha had only a dozen known refusals in each subject.

Eddie Campbell, schools superintendent for Tucker County, which had the third-highest number in the state, said his county has about 1,020 students. The state education department recorded 158 students there who refused to take the English/language arts test, and 156 who refused to take the math exam.

The majority of refusals came from Tucker’s only high school, which has 325 students. Campbell said he didn’t know why, but suspected it had something to do with the rural nature of the county and students telling one another that they could refuse to take the test.

“It doesn’t take much for things like that to spread like wildfire in our community,” he said.

Jay Hamric, principal at Tucker County High, also said the issue spread “like wildfire,” with students of diverse backgrounds and academic achievement levels printing off the same test-refusal form and signing it alongside their parents. He said the students got the form off the Internet but didn’t know which website or sites it came from.

Hamric said the two major issues among students and parents were opposition to the Common Core standards and a feeling there is too much time being spent on testing.

He called the situation a “little bit disappointing and disheartening,” noting that his school usually scores among the best in West Virginia on standardized tests and that the students who did take it last school year scored above the statewide proficiency levels.

Campbell said a bigger issue than the county getting a low test participation rate is that the school system now doesn’t have as much information on how well the students who refused to test learned the standards. He said it likely will be more difficult to adjust teaching to help these students — something the county told refusing parents would be the case — but he defended his decision not to punish those pupils and parents who refused the exams.

“There was a natural consequence for refusing to take the test,” he said, “and there was no need for us as a school system to place an additional penalty or an additional punishment.”