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W.Va. standardized test scores drop

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By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer 

More West Virginia students failed to hit proficiency marks in the 2013-14 school year, according to the Westest standardized test scores published Friday — several months after the results are normally released.

Fifty-eight percent of students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 failed to show proficiency in math — an increase from 55 percent in the 2012-13 school year and the highest the failure rate has been since the 2009-10 school year, when 58 percent didn’t meet the threshold. 

The online data say a massive drop in test scores starting after the 2008-2009 school year was because the state raised the level to be deemed proficient.The number of students who failed to hit the mark in reading also increased, from 51 percent to 53 percent, also the highest since the 2009-10 school year.

The lower success rates come in the final year of the test, and the first time students took it online instead of on paper. After more than a decade with Westest, West Virginia is switching to a new exam, which is based on national Common Core standards. West Virginia is among at least 46 states that have accepted the Common Core standards, although Republicans, who gained control of the state Legislature in the Nov. 4 election, have expressed opposition to them. 

Westest scores don’t count toward students’ grades or graduation. They are used by the state to gauge which schools need help. The federal government is moving toward requiring teaching evaluations to be based, in part, on future standardized test scores. 

The state Board of Education voted in July to delay a test-score-dependent education policy until the 2015-16 school year after the state’s branches of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association complained it was too early to base evaluations off the Common Core standards, which were only planned to be fully implemented this year. The change would base 15 percent of math and reading/language-arts teacher evaluations off test scores.

Kanwaha County schools officials expressed concern that scores on the test, given there in April, would be depressed by the many missed school days because of the harsh winter and the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical leak into the Elk River. The results show that, in Kanawha, the state’s largest school district, 54 percent of students weren’t proficient in math, up from 51 percent in 2012-13, and 49 percent weren’t proficient in reading, up from 47 percent in 2012-13.

In a statement, Kanawha School Superintendent Ron Duerring said Kanawha students were above average for West Virginia in math and reading, according to the data.

“Despite 19 days of lost instruction due to the water crisis and inclement weather, our students performed well. Given the transition from a paper/pencil to online administration of the test, we anticipated the possibility of incremental decline in the scores,” Duerring said “Having had the first year of a successful online administration under our belts, we are focused on preparing our students for a new general summative assessment measuring Common Core standards this spring.”

In neighboring Putnam County, 45 percent of students weren’t proficient in math, up from 40 percent the previous year. That was driven by a 5 percentage point increase in the number of students scoring in the novice, or lowest, category. In reading, the number of students not making the cut went from 41 percent to 42 percent.

Third-graders had some of the lowest proficiency marks in the state — 37 percent in math and 43 percent in reading. Eighth-graders scored just two percentage points better in math and 5 percentage points better in reading. Only 40 percent of 10th-graders were proficient in math and 49 percent were proficient in reading. 

The number of schools designated “success” institutions — the highest designation in the state’s Accountability Index — dropped from about a quarter in 2012-13 to less than a fifth in 2013-14. The Accountability Index, first used in 2012-13, measures, among other things, students’ scores, how much they’re improving and how certain groups are performing.

A quarter of Kanawha’s schools are now designated success schools, down from more than 40 percent in 2012-13. The number of success schools in Putnam dropped from 10 to two.

“It’s important to point out that each school’s individual target increased,” state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordiero said in a news release titled “Hundreds of State Schools Showing Improvements in Academic Proficiency and Student Growth.” “Due to this increase in the target, many more schools did not meet their targets.” 

Carla Howe, interim executive director of data governance and accountability for the education department, said each school has individual targets for improving reading and math scores, with a shared goal of getting them to be 75 percent proficient by 2020. A majority of students in each subgroup — such as blacks and low-income students — must meet the annual target for the school to be labeled a success.

Westest 2 scores are typically released to teachers in the summer of each year and to the public by August. Cordeiro said a compatibility test that had to be done by the exam vendor delayed the release to school districts until September — and teachers should have adapted their lessons to the results long ago. 

When asked why the release of the scores to the news media and the wider public took until Friday, Codiero said the separate Accountability Index labels weren’t ready to release to both the public and schools until now because they were delayed by a fact-checking process that included schools objecting to certain data that factored into their designations.

“We don’t want to put labels out there for schools that are inaccurate,” Cordiero said. 

Howe said the department received 300 appeals — a single school could appeal multiple points — and only found 55 to be valid. Schools objected to things like students who were allegedly enrolled for fewer than 135 days wrongly being counted as part of their Westest scores. 

The Accountability Index is being replaced next year with an A-F labeling system that Howe said will be more standardized among schools but still factor in student growth. The old growth target data will still be collected for the federal government. 

Cordiero said the new system is part of making the labels more clear.

“The idea is that the community pulls together based on these designations because they’re easily understandable,” she said. “If you were a parent and someone said you were a transition school, how would you describe that?”