State leaders might follow Justice's lead on reforming A to F

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State leaders might follow Justice's lead on reforming A to F
By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s A through F grading system for schools, which just debuted a few months ago, is already getting a failing grade from new Gov. Jim Justice.

“We’ve got to worry about our kids getting an A through F versus our schools getting an A through F,” Justice, a Democrat from Greenbrier County, said in his inauguration speech on Monday.

Reaction to that comment among state leaders so far has ranged from enthusiasm to willingness to tinker with the system.

The system, which is also used in various forms in some other states, made its West Virginia debut in November. Most of West Virginia’s 668 schools that were graded earned Cs because the initial results were produced on a bell curve.

The plan has been for the bell curve to produce a set of standards for schools to meet in the future.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin backed the system, and the state school board said it would provide a valuable tool for parents to assess how their schools are doing.

In other states, most criticism has to do with the data that was selected to grade the schools and whether it accurately indicates school performance or improvement.

That’s the case in West Virginia, too. Here, school grades are determined on a range of standards. The bulk — 83 percent — are based on showing proficiency and improvement in subject areas like math and language arts.

Those scores are derived from the Smarter Balanced standardized test, which the state school board decided this month to consider replacing with end-of-course exams that would be connected to a student’s final grade.

Smarter Balanced does not affect grades, so the criticism is that there’s little incentive for students to put forth a full effort.

“The A through F grading system is so much invested in that final test that means nothing to the student,” state Senate President Mitch Carmichael said Tuesday during an appearance on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval. “I’m not sure you’re getting a good, balanced rating for the parents in the school system.

Carmichael, a Republican from Jackson County, went on to say, “I’m not sure the A through F system has been received as it is intended to be. He’s right that we ought to be grading our students. We need to hold our schools accountable, but to do it simply on this test is ridiculous. It’s taking away from the true mission of education to convey knowledge and invest people with the skill set to move forward in a 21st Century economy.”

State schools superintendent Michael Martirano supports the move away from Smarter Balanced. But Martirano warns that the federal government requires a system of educational accountability, so if the A through F system is discontinued it would have to be replaced.

“Regardless if we go A to F, we have to have something in place,” Martirano said in a telephone interview. “Let’s step back and make the necessary adjustments within the system. Let’s make it more meaningful to the people we’re trying to reach.”

Martirano continued, “I want it done in a very thoughtful manner. I think there’s an opportunity to tweak the system we just implemented. We support the move away from Smarter Balanced. We recognize we’ve got work to do.”

Nick Casey, the chief of staff for Justice, said the new governor’s main concern is if A through F gives a negative impression of schools on the failing end without properly enlightening the community about what should improve.

The A through F system “appears on its face to be punitive in the way it does the measurements,” Casey said while appearing on “Talkline” today.

“The governor does have some concerns about the way we’re measuring accountability. That A through F on kids is something we understand. On schools, it’s almost a divisive, concerning way to do the measurements. Let’s do the measurements in a way that empower the folks at the schools.

Casey acknowledged that the state school board sets standards independently of the governor’s office, although the governor does appoint its members. There are currently two openings on the board, which has nine voting members.

“This is a situation where it’s a conversation and communication with the state board of education,” Casey said. “The governor does not control the state board of education.

“What the governor supports is accountability and he supports outcomes. You want those as a premise, but how you explain that to people F versus A is not very helpful and I don’t think is representative of the accountability that those schools have.”

The West Virginia Education Association, one of the unions that represents educators, raised immediate alarms about the A through F system. The teachers union has said there are  “real questions about the validity and fairness of such systems.”

“The WVEA and its members have opposed the A-F grading system from the beginning,” WVEA President Dale Lee said when the system debuted. “We have spoken before the state board numerous times to express our members’ concern over a misguided representation of what education is about.”

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson expressed interest in reviewing the A through F system while appearing Tuesday on “Talkline.”

“How is my school performing? Some of the report cards we’ve gotten have made it difficult to determine,” Espinosa said. “I support the concept. It’s a little heavy on one assessment.”