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Majority of W.Va. students miss mark on new Common-Core aligned test

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Majority of W.Va. students miss mark on new Common-Core aligned test
By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

Of West Virginia students in elementary, middle and high schools, only fifth graders tested proficient in either math or English/language arts on the state’s new Common Core-aligned standardized test last school year, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.

Those students barely managed an overall proficiency rate in English/language arts, with 51 percent testing proficient. Only 30 percent of them were deemed proficient in math.

About 175,000 Mountain State students took the Smarter Balanced test in the spring of the 2014-15 school year.

Proficiency rates — defined as scoring a 3 or 4 on the 1-4 scale — were below 50 percent in both subjects in all other grade levels. The math results were worse than English in this state, where leaders have stressed the need for better science, technology, engineering and math education as the coal industry continues its downturn.

West Virginia’s preliminary proficiency rates were also the lowest in both subjects and in every grade tested in the four other states using Smarter Balanced exams that Luci Willits, deputy executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said had released numbers as of Tuesday. All but one of these states’ results are also not final, and one, Oregon, said it expects that the remaining 5 percent of tests it has yet to grade will drop its rates. The other states are Idaho, Missouri and Washington.

Despite poor scores overall, West Virginia students beat in all grades the English/language arts proficiency rates — and in third grade the math proficiency rate — projected by a 2013-14 field test of about 4 million students in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. State Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said about 16,000 West Virginia students took part in that field test.

West Virginia third-graders beat expectations the most with a 46 percent proficiency rate in English/language arts, eight percentage points higher than the field test predicted, and a 44 percent proficiency rate in math, which is 5 percentage points higher than the field test projected. State school officials touted the third-graders’ performance, noting that, while the Common Core-based standards were only implemented statewide in all grades last school year, the third-graders had been on them the longest — since kindergarten.

 “That’s why we’re pleased to see, on both English/language arts and math, that those students are outperforming,” Anderson said.

Gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. President Bill Cole has, among other legislators, pledged to repeal the state’s Common Core-based standards.

“As these preliminary test results show, it’s clear we are failing our students on providing them with even basic proficiency in math, science and English,” Cole said in a statement sent to the Gazette-Mail Wednesday evening. “While there is some positive news in our younger students, the fact remains that we have barely prepared our high school students to succeed at the next levels of education.”

The Smarter Balanced test is part of what’s called the West Virginia General Summative Assessment in this state. Grades three through eight and 11 took Smarter Balanced tests on English/language arts and math. Vaughn Rhudy, executive director of the state’s Office of Assessment and Research, said Smarter Balanced didn’t create a test for ninth and 10th grades, so West Virginia modified the exam for those students.

Ninth-graders had only an 18 percent proficiency rate in math, 10th-graders had a 15 percent proficiency rate, and 11th-graders — for whom state higher education agencies are moving to allow proficiency on Smarter Balanced to exempt them from remedial college courses — had only a 20 percent proficiency rate. Only about a quarter of West Virginia students in sixth, seventh and eight-grade were deemed proficient in math.

Rhudy presented data to the West Virginia Board of Education last month showing that as grade level increased, students spent less time on the test — and students who spent more time generally scored higher. The test doesn’t count toward students’ grades.

State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano noted the state’s new standards are more difficult to meet, and called 2014-15’s results a “baseline” for future years. He also said the department is working to shorten the current 36-day time frame during which districts can give the test, in order to reduce the perception that the exam is taking up that amount of time — he said students are projected to need only four hours in math and four hours in English/language arts.

Martirano said he also wants to ensure the last day of testing is also the last day of school, in response to reports he’s heard of schools not taking class time seriously in the days following the end of the assessment time frame. He also highlighted the department’s efforts to get districts to start the school year earlier — all are starting school this month — and to offer 180 separate instructional days to ensure all students are taught all the standards before testing.

 “If you really want to get at improving the results, you have to teach all the standards, and then you assess,” Martirano said.

 Department of Education officials said the statewide numbers are preliminary because they don’t include results from the 2,500 students who took the West Virginia Alternate Assessment, which Rhudy said is given to special education students, and because the department is still working to remove the results from students who tested in West Virginia but had been in the state fewer than 135 days.

Anderson said the final results of the General Summative Assessment will be available later this fall, though she did not specify when. She said school districts would be free to reveal their local-level data after the state school board discussed the results at its regular monthly meeting Wednesday afternoon. Kanawha County school district Superintendent Ron Duerring said his county will wait until it has final results to release the data. Kanawha plans to send home students’ individual scores — which will not be publicized — Aug. 21.

Anderson said the statewide results don’t record zeros for students who didn’t take the test. A movement to “opt-out” of Common Core-aligned tests has affected other states — and news reports this spring said perhaps as many as 200 students at Wayne County’s Spring Valley High School had refused to take Smarter Balanced — but preliminary numbers suggest there haven’t been many refusals in Kanawha.

Smarter Balanced is meant to measure students’ ability to meet Common Core-aligned math and English/language arts standards. More than 40 states have adopted Common Core standards in the hopes of establishing a set of national teaching requirements that prepare students for colleges and careers.

Willits said 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.

A point of using Smarter Balanced, other than providing a superior year-end test, is for West Virginia to be able to compare its results not just among its 55 counties, but with other states.

But state schools officials say the fact that Smarter Balanced is designed differently and based on a different set of standards than the state’s previous standardized test, Westest, renders the Smarter Balanced scores incomparable to previous years. Westest scores also conveyed that Mountain State students aren’t learning necessary skills — the final Westest results, released in December, indicated their performance was actually worsening. The results showed only 42 percent of students in grades three through eight and 11 were proficient in math, the lowest portion since the 2009-10 school year. Only 47 percent were proficient in reading, also the lowest rate since the 2009-10 school year.

The state attributed a massive drop in Westest scores starting after the 2008-09 school year to its raising of the level students must meet to be deemed proficient. School officials attributed the lower scores in the final year of Westest partly to students having to take the test online for the first time. Smarter Balanced is also a computer test.

Last school year, students in grades four, six and 10 also tested on science — following the state school board’s February vote to reduce science standardized testing from grades three through 11 to just those three grades — but the science test was meant to examine whether students were meeting the state’s current science standards, which are not Common Core-based. The Common Core national standards blueprint does not contain science standards, though the new science standards that the state plans to implement next school year do have connections to Common Core math and English/language arts requirements.

Because the test is based on the same standards, the science data is comparable to past years. Only 36 percent of West Virginia fourth graders were proficient in science in 2014-15, the lowest rate since 2011-12, when 35 percent were proficient. Only 39 percent of sixth graders were proficient in the subject. Only 35 percent of 10th graders were proficient.

State lawmakers failed in the past legislative session to pass a bill to repeal the West Virginia’s Common Core-based standards. After the legislation passed the House of Delegates 75-19, the Senate Education Committee watered down the repeal bill to just require a review of the standards. But that version still would’ve required the state to cease after the next school year using any standardized tests from Smarter Balanced or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, another group of states that has produced its own Common Core-aligned tests.

The bill failed on the last night of the session when the House and Senate failed to reconcile their different versions.

Last month, the state Department of Education launched a review of the standards anyway, centered on a new website at wvacademicspotlight.statestandards.org that allows people to read and comment on any of the over 900 math and English/language arts K-12 standards after entering required data such as their names, whether they live in West Virginia and whether they are a parent, teacher or in some other role. Department officials are asking for something they didn’t receive from the legislators who wanted to repeal Common Core: any problems with specific standards. The ability to comment ends Sept. 30.

Sarah Stewart, the department’s director of policy and government relations, announced Wednesday the review will include a series of town halls throughout next month. Anderson said the department plans to hold eight. The first will be Sept. 1 at West Virginia University, though Stewart said she didn’t immediately know the exact location. Others are currently planned for Shepherd University, which is in the Eastern Panhandle, and Southern West Virginia and BridgeValley community colleges.

The department also outlined a new website, wvnextgen.org, where parents can learn more about the Common Core-based standards — which West Virginia has renamed Next Generation. State school board member Beverly Kingery said she knows the Common Core standards are under attack, but she highlighted Kentucky — which, according to a May article from The Wall Street Journal, is in its third year of testing on the standards and has seen its scores generally increase. Kentucky doesn’t use a Smarter Balanced test.

“We have standards that will work if we give them time,” Kingery said.