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Testing panel eyes ACT

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Testing panel eyes ACT
By Ryann Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

One day before West Virginia lawmakers start their annual regular session Wednesday, a group formed to consider statewide standardized testing might make its final recommendations on big changes to the exams.

At its second meeting last week, most members of state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano’s Commission on Assessment said they wanted to move away from West Virginia’s existing Smarter Balanced standardized exams, limit end-of-year testing in high school to only one grade and specifically explore using the ACT as statewide assessments. The group will provide its advice to Martirano, who will make recommendations to the state Board of Education.

Commission member Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, urged the group to meet again before Wednesday.

“This train is going to pull out of the tracks fast and furious,” Lee said of the legislative session, “and I would rather educators be the engineer of this train, than politicians.”

Smarter Balanced is aligned with Common Core math and English language arts standards, and opposition to both the standards and Smarter Balanced has often intertwined at a time that there’s much criticism of standardized tests in general.

Last year, the Senate Education Committee reduced a House-approved Common Core repeal bill to just require a review, but the Senate version still would’ve required West Virginia to cease, after next school year, using any standardized tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The legislation failed when the House and Senate couldn’t reconcile their differing versions on the last night of the session.

For its meeting today — in Building 6, Room 318 of the Capitol Complex in Charleston — the commission members have specifically requested more info on using the ACT Aspire, offered in grades 3-10, and the ACT itself to meet annual federal testing requirements.

Education officials say the new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind still requires math and reading testing in at least grades three through eight, plus once in high school, and requires science testing at least three times from grade three through 12. But they say the law newly allows for using the SAT and ACT to meet federal requirements.

Standardized testing can allow for comparing West Virginia’s performance to students in other states. Paul Weeks, senior vice president of client relations for ACT, said 16 states require that students take the ACT. West Virginia isn’t among them. He said the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education estimated about 60 percent of high school graduates nationwide took the ACT last school year.

“The cohort of ACT-tested students has become increasingly diverse and representative of students at large, which means the data that we’ve been tracking, monitoring, is considerably more useful than it was 10, 12, 15 years ago,” he said.

Smarter Balanced spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier wrote in an email that 15 states plan to use Smarter Balanced for their end-of-year testing this school year.

Weeks said that, in addition to offering tests for all the grades West Virginia tests in for math and English, ACT, unlike Smarter Balanced, also offers science tests. West Virginia used a modified version of Westest, the test that preceded Smarter Balanced, for science last school year. Smarter Balanced also uses only one test for high school students, but the state altered Smarter Balanced to test three high school grades.

Kanawha County school board member Ryan White has expressed support for allowing counties to choose between ACT and SAT assessments. The SAT does not have a science portion, and only provides tests for grades eight through high school, but it includes science- and social studies-related questions as part of its tests.

Weeks said the normal ACT that students take to get into colleges has five sections: English, math, reading, science and the optional writing portion. He said the same sections also are available in all grades of the ACT Aspire, but states can choose which portions they want in each grade level.

A lingering question is whether new tests, or Smarter Balanced, can adequately assess if students are meeting the state’s new standards for the upcoming school year. Although Martirano has said West Virginia’s new standards are not based on the Common Core standards, which the state uses, they contain much identical language, down to the same examples and same ordering.

Weeks said ACT is about a week or two away from completing an internal alignment study between its tests and the state’s new standards. Alyssa Schwenk, director of external relations for the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Institute, said that organization also expects to publish, early next month, a study of the quality and alignment to Common Core of four tests: ACT Aspire, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, Smarter Balanced and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which Schwenk said is commonly considered a “gold standard” of a state-level tests.

Weeks, who said the federal government might require an independent standards-test alignment study for West Virginia to use the ACT tests for federal reporting, said the alignment between the ACT exams and the Mountain State’s new standards will be “very strong,” because the new standards don’t veer too much from Common Core.

He said the ACT exams also line up well in some categories with the Next Generation Science Standards, another national standards blueprint that the state adopted, albeit with some changes to the teaching of global warming. He said ACT can work with states to add questions to the tests to cover gaps in what standards require, but ACT wouldn’t change the heart of the tests because it would harm comparability.