Days missed cause a change in WESTEST strategy

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By Chelsi Baker 
Times West Virginian 

FAIRMONT — Students in Marion County missed 19 days of school this year.

With snowfall totaling 62 1/2 inches this winter and temperatures reaching 9 degrees below zero at times, students and teachers were forced to stay home so as not to risk their safety.

That many snow days left schools behind schedule in terms of what material teachers want and need to cover, which could negatively impact students’ progress on what they need to know going into their next grade level.

Administrators are not as concerned, however, about students’ performance on this year’s WESTEST because it focuses more on critical thinking skills and applying concepts to answer questions.

“The WESTEST itself doesn’t ask questions like ‘who, what, when and where’ ... that information is provided on the WESTEST,” said Diane Furman of the Marion County Board of Education’s central office. “We ask the students to use the information, to apply the information. ... The fact that we are still teaching kids how to infer, to draw conclusions, all of the critical thinking pieces — my guess is that the children will still perform well on the WESTEST because, in Marion County, all of our teachers understand the importance of teaching critical thinking. That’s a part of every day.”

For example, students will not be asked to name the 55 counties in West Virginia, but they might be asked what might be different in the counties based on their location and geography.

However, the “who, what, when and where” could be important for their progress next year, and it might throw students off if they see information on the test they haven’t seen in class.

To ensure they cover essential skills, content and concepts students need to master for the WESTEST and for next year, teachers look at a curriculum guide and prioritize things and change their lesson plans to cover what is most important.

“You have to acknowledge the fact that if you lose a month of school, we’ve missed some instruction for our students,” Furman said. “The teachers look over the curriculum that was left to be delivered, and you have to make a decision. Out of the curriculum that is left, what are the essentials that a child would need in order to be successful at the next grade level, or are they essential life skills if you’re talking high school?”

Furman explained that some teachers have added a question of the day to their curriculum, which covers content they don’t have as much time to teach in class.

The material might not be essential, but they want to introduce it in case students come across a question pertaining to that material on the WESTEST.

Some teachers have also combined lessons and concepts that relate to make more time and relate the two topics in a practical way, she said.

Lisa Lister, principal at West Fairmont Middle School, said teachers take a team approach to instruction.

They make their own teaching plan, but they also come together in teams based on either grade or department, depending on what grade they teach, to form a group plan on what to cover.

Teachers give their students informal mini tests at the end of the day to see what they have mastered and what needs covered more, and they bring the results to each meeting, she said.

“They decide, based on those assessments daily, what items they need to teach and what strengths and weaknesses they need to cover, and they adjust their curriculum based on that,” said Lister.

The mini assessments will carry over into next year, too, to make sure students are all on the same level at the beginning of school.

“Some of the things we didn’t get to go over because of missed weather days — possibly, they may get behind, but I’m sure the teachers can catch them up on it,” Lister said. “For the beginning of the year, it’s always review anyway.”

Teachers throughout the county might have to adjust lesson plans at the start of next year because students might not have had time to learn everything they would normally learn the year before, Furman explained.

“They’re behind in covering the material for the year,” said Melvyn Coleman, Fairview Elementary School’s principal. “Everybody is trying to make up time. Everyone is.”

Fairview implemented an online program for students to learn material at home, he said, and he is confident that teachers know what they need to cover to prepare the students both for next year and for the WESTEST.

“I think we’ll do fine. I think our kids will do fine,” said Coleman. “Our teachers are working diligently to prepare our kids.”

David Nuzum, East Fairmont High School’s principal, is a little more apprehensive.

“I’m concerned about where the kids are going to be next year. At the same time, I’m not concerned that we have gotten through a lot of the concepts. I know we have asked our teachers to look at the critical concepts, look at their curriculum mappers to see where they are compared to where they normally would be and to pick the skills that are most critical, not only for the WESTEST and finishing up this year, but also to prepare the kids for next year,” he said. “We just need to be planning ahead and teaching smarter over the next few weeks.”

East Fairmont’s teachers and administrators came together on faculty senate days to discuss how to spend the time they have left this year, Nuzum said.

“I think that’s where our teachers need to look at the curriculum overall and look at the most critical concepts and make sure we cover those critical concepts well in the time we have left. ... We still have some time to get the kids prepared.”

Marion County Schools can begin taking the WESTEST April 21, and they have until June 6 — the last day of school — to finish testing. Each school is scheduled to test at a different time in that period. They will not be testing every day from April to June. The test covers reading/language arts, social studies, math and science.

“Federal programs that provide us with funding want us to measure and make sure that our children are growing academically, and in meeting those requirements, they have developed the WESTEST,” Furman explained.

Teachers, along with the West Virginia Department of Education, developed the WESTEST to meet federal guidelines in terms of measuring students’ progress throughout their education, and they put together a core set of standards and objectives students should be meeting at every grade level.

The test measures how well children are meeting those standards and objectives.

This process ensures that a student who transfers to a different county, for example, will not fall behind because all the schools are teaching pretty much the same content.

“Sometimes I hear the phrase ‘teaching to the test,” and I’m thinking, ‘Uh, why not?’ because it was teachers who decided ‘this is the content that my third-grade student should know when they leave,’” Furman said. “If you’re teaching that content, absolutely you’re teaching to the test because the test is only permitted to measure what teachers have said students should know and be able to do. ... That’s why I think Marion County does so well, because teachers understand that.”

This year, the test will be online.

“It’s kind of exciting, in a way, to go to this different platform, both for the teachers and for the students, because we’ve never had the opportunity to do this in large numbers,” Furman said.

All the schools in the county will take at least one practice test, she said, to prepare students for what they will have to do as far as submitting answers, signing into the system and navigating through the test itself, she said.

“In going to the new format, we want to make sure the students are comfortable using the computer to answer questions, so whereas they normally would have picked up a ruler and measured an object on their book, they now have to use a ruler on the computer,” said Furman.

Lister feels confident the school is ready as far as technology goes, and she has little worries about how well the students will adapt.

“It’s hard to say, though, because there are several variables. It’s computerized, so it’s going to be totally different, you know? Of course, these students are digital natives, so they know how to use computers and are used to doing tests on computers more than pencil and paper,” said Lister.

As far as preparing students for the content itself and for next year, teachers will simply have to prioritize and work hard to teach students as much as possible despite missing almost one month of instructional time, said Furman.

“Adding the month would have been much better,” she said. “I’m not going to deny that, but at the same point, I have confidence that our teachers are teaching the critical thinking that students bring to the WESTEST and have always shown that they do very well.”