Most Kanawha students tested despite opt out movement

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Most Kanawha students tested despite opt out movement
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Despite reports of students refusing to take Common Core-related standardized tests in other states and other West Virginia counties, the Mountain State’s largest school district hasn’t seen many students do so.

Jon Duffy, Kanawha County Schools’ director of counseling and testing, said that as of Tuesday about 60 percent of the district’s roughly 60 schools had reported their testing results to the county’s central office. Unofficial counts suggest all have met the federal requirement to test at least 95 percent of students, and Duffy said he has “no reason to believe” any Kanawha school will fall below that threshold.

Wednesday is the last day of school for most Kanawha students, and Duffy said the last week of school is generally for make-up exams for the students who missed the regular round of testing due to illness or other issues.

“There were isolated incidents of parents refusing for their children to test,” he said. “However, our principals addressed those on a one-on-one basis, so I would not say a significantly higher rate than in the past.”

South Charleston High School Principal Michael Arbogast, whose school gave the new Smarter Balanced exam last academic year as part of a pilot project, said he didn’t see any increase in students “opting out” this academic year. He said the school uses the test data, like the results it gets from the ACT, to design its curriculum, and it rewards students who score well with things such as free prom tickets and parking passes.

George Washington High School Principal George Aulenbacher said he doesn’t think any of his students refused the test.

All Kanawha schools hitting 95 percent would be an improvement over last academic year, when Duffy said one school, Stonewall Jackson Middle, didn’t meet the requirement. Last school year was the final one for the WESTEST, a standardized state exam that wasn’t aligned to Common Core math and English/language arts standards.

Students across West Virginia and other states with Common Core standards took the Smarter Balanced test this year in the hope to produce scores that can be compared not only within states but among them as well.

Not meeting the 95 percent testing level could lead the federal government to withhold funds for schools, though The Associated Press reported in April that that has never occurred.

Previously proposed rules for West Virginia’s new A-F school rating system — which is planned to take effect after testing next school year, replacing the Accountability Index that gave schools labels such as “success” or “priority” — would drop a school’s grade by one letter if between 5 and 10 percent of students miss the test. More than 10 percent of students not taking the test would mean an automatic F.

But Sarah Stewart, the state Department of Education’s director of policy and government relations, said Tuesday the rules have not been finalized.

Kanawha Superintendent Ron Duerring said his district previously scheduled separate assignments during testing time for those whose parents refused to give their children permission to take the exams. But, in response to the state Department of Education’s assertion this spring that there is no “opt-out” provision under state law or policy allowing students not to participate, Duffy said Kanawha instructed principals to require students who refused to take the test to sit in front of their computers anyway during the exam session.

Vaughn Rhudy, K-12 state lead for Smarter Balanced and assessment coordinator for the state Office of Assessment, said he couldn’t say how students refusing to test may have affected other districts because districts have yet to submit to the state reports on how many pupils weren’t tested. He anticipates those reports by the end of this month or by mid-July.

Stewart said that, other than those reports, there’s no formal procedure for counties to inform the departments about students refusing to test, and the state Department of Education often finds out through media.

News reports this spring said perhaps as many as 200 students at Wayne County’s Spring Valley High School had opted out of the test as part of an opt-out movement that has affected other states.

Spring Valley High has fewer than 1,100 students. Sean Ferguson — Spring Valley High’s vice principal overseeing assessment, special education and attendance — told the Gazette the school did not meet the 95 percent mark this school year but didn’t know exactly how many students had refused the test. He referred a reporter to the district’s central office for more information; officials there didn’t return calls Tuesday.

Despite controversy before the Harrison County school board on schools there punishing students who refused to take the tests, Harrison officials said only 17 out of more than 7,200 students tested in their district refused the test. Wendy Imperial — Harrison’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and technology — said a few of those 17 didn’t opt out of all portions of the testing.

Harrison Superintendent Mark Manchin said students were given lunch detentions and in-school suspensions for not taking the test. He argued these weren’t punishments, but “consequences for nonparticipation.”

“Students have to participate,” he said. “If you want to send a message that you’re unhappy with Common Core, that’s fine, let’s get a change in Charleston.”

The superintendent — first cousin of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is married to state school board President Gayle Manchin — said he wishes the state would clarify what districts should do with students who refuse the test. The state Department of Education has reiterated in past months that there is no testing opt-out provision in state law or policy.

“You almost go, ‘OK, now what?’” Manchin said. “… There’s no provision for opting out. What is the next logical conclusion?”

Stewart said the department’s stance on the issue has been “pretty clear”: It does not suggest punishments for students who refuse to test. But she said such decisions are left to the districts.

Angie Summers, a member of WV Against Common Core, said she believes Harrison would have had more students opt out if the county didn’t threaten students with punishments.

“I honestly believe that it is of the highest priority that in this state we affirm parental rights, and that includes the right to opt out,” she said. “Parents should be directing their children’s education.”

Duffy said he wasn’t aware of any Kanawha students being disciplined for refusing to test.

Manchin said he wants clarification because he expects controversy over Common Core to continue due to the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign. Jeb Bush is a Common Core backer, while several announced or likely opponents in the Republican primary are criticizing the standards.

Common Core will also likely be an issue in the next state legislative session, following a failed repeal bill this year. Delegate Michel Moffatt, R-Putnam, said he plans to push another repeal bill, alongside a “parental rights” bill to give parents more say in their children’s education.

In a speech Tuesday announcing his run for governor, state Senate President Bill Cole also said he opposes Common Core and that West Virginia needs new education standards.

Duffy said it takes students about twice as long to take the Smarter Balanced test in math and reading, but some middle and high schools were actually able to reduce testing time compared to last school year due to the roughly $14 million Learning 20/20 plan, in which Kanawha distributed about 15,000 iPad Air tablet computers to every middle and high school student in the county.

This increased number of devices upped the number of students who could take the online portions of the test simultaneously.

In February, the state school board also voted to eliminate social studies standardized testing and reduce science standardized testing to just grades four, six and 11 — a move state Department of Education staff said was in response to “continued comments from superintendents, principals, teachers, students, parents [and] legislators about the amount of testing required of students.”

Full testing in those subjects, which aren’t part of the Common Core, will resume next school year if the state board doesn’t approve another waiver.

Duffy noted the exam results are used to shape teaching, and pointed out that whether they take the ACT or SAT to get into college, or other tests to enter the military or law enforcement, Smarter Balanced likely won’t be the last standardized exam students take.

“In every building so far, we’ve met our 95 percent participation rate,” he reiterated. “So I think that speaks well to the fact that our administrators and teachers have communicated the importance and the reasons that we participate in standardized testing.”