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State Board of Education plans for new A-to-F grading system

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education is in the preliminary phases of determining what aspects of student achievement will be considered when the state makes the switch to an A-F labeling system for schools in the fall.

The state will swap its old five-category accountability system -- which the state Department of Education unveiled in May when it received a No Child Left Behind waiver -- to move to what officials say is a more uniform system that labels schools with only one letter grade to symbolize progress.

The new A-F system -- which is currently practiced by several other states -- will focus on four key areas: achievement, student growth, performance of the lowest 25 percent and high school graduation rates.

But other states using the system, including Florida, which first instituted the A-F style under the leadership of former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, have dealt with criticism in recent years over what letter grades actually mean when it comes to student achievement.

Opponents say the system is too punitive, as schools with a history of failing grades can be closed or forced to hire new teachers, and that it can lead to a majority of schools receiving an "F" regardless of improvement or decline in test scores.

West Virginia Board of Education member Bill White voiced his own concerns at a state board meeting on Wednesday, pointing to Virginia educators who recently began second-guessing whether the system should be instituted in their school districts.

"Other states have had reservations ... because of problems, and there's a stigma," White said. "I think it's really worth looking at before we jump into this. It's kind of scary."

Robert Hull, associate superintendent for the state Department of Education, who presented the preliminary plans for the system on Wednesday, said West Virginia officials have been in talks with other states that have implemented the system. In November, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin hosted an education panel in Charleston that included Florida educators experienced with the A-F system.

"We've looked at some of the lessons they've learned. They'd tell you at this point, there are some things they would've done differently," Hull said. "We've been able to learn from that and say these are pitfalls we want to prevent. That conversation has taken place."

The focus on the lowest achieving 25 percent of students is one of the major changes to the state's school accountability system because it essentially nixes the "subgroups" schools used to be judged on, Hull said.

Before, how a school ranked in the accountability system took into account how sub-populations of students -- such as minorities, those from low-income families and with disabilities -- scored on tests compared to the main student population.