Testing commission eyes replacing Smarter Balanced with ACT

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Testing commission eyes replacing Smarter Balanced with ACT
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Most members of the West Virginia Schools superintendent’s commission on testing want to move away from Smarter Balanced standardized exams, limit end-of-year testing in high school to only one grade and specifically explore using ACT tests as statewide assessments.

The recommendations came near the end of a nearly five-hour-long meeting that included commission members expressing worries about more students refusing to take tests this school year.

They also expressed concern about the state’s plan to give entire schools and counties A-F grades based largely on standardized tests.

The commission expressed complaints that Smarter Balanced, a Common Core-aligned math and English language arts test, isn’t an accurate gauge of student achievement, doesn’t give much reason for students to take it seriously and doesn’t provide information on what exactly students are struggling with.

Mountain State students had a 27 percent proficiency rate in math on Smarter Balanced last school year, the first year for the test statewide, and a 45 percent proficiency rate in English language arts.

“The No. 1 complaint I hear is a lack of prescriptive feedback,” said commission member Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Elementary/Middle Schools Principals Association. Fellow commission member Blaine Hess, superintendent of Jackson County Schools, noted that providing the ACT statewide would save families the cost of paying for the popular college entrance exam.

The commission — which has 26 members, although not all were present for the full meeting — is expected to meet a third and final time on Jan. 12. Final recommendations will be made to state Superintendent Michael Martirano, who will use them to advise the West Virginia Board of Education on whether to make any changes or not.

The ACT is not required by Mountain State schools, and West Virginia uses Smarter Balanced, instead of the ACT, to meet federal requirements to report test scores.

Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law a bipartisan bill that gives states more flexibility in how they hold their schools and school systems accountable. Just like its unpopular predecessor, No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to give annual standardized tests to practically all students in reading and math for grades three through eight and one grade in high school.

West Virginia goes beyond the requirement by testing grades nine, 10 and 11 in high school.

In a change from No Child Left Behind, education officials have said, the new law will allow the use of the ACT or SAT in place of West Virginia’s standardized test in high school, and Paul Weeks, senior vice president of client relations for the ACT, presented to commission members Tuesday information on ACT Aspire tests that also could replace Smarter Balanced in grades three through eight.

Also presenting Tuesday were representatives from Smarter Balanced; the College Board, which produces the SAT and is now offering tests from grades eight and up, as well as connections to free online Khan Academy lessons; and a consultant with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, whom state Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said was invited to present about end-of-course exams that some states use to gauge whether students should progress to the next grade or not.

Poor Smarter Balanced scores don’t stop West Virginia students from advancing or graduating, although scoring “proficient” does exempt them from remedial courses in state colleges.

Eighteen states used Smarter Balanced exams last school year, according to Luci Willits, deputy executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium of states, allowing for state-to-state comparability with limitations regarding some states’ individual choices in how to give the test.

But she said other states have dropped out of Smarter Balanced testing for this year, and that number could further decrease because of continuing opposition to the Common Core standards and the new federal law. Weeks said 16 states now require the ACT.

Through Post-it notes, on which they weren’t required to write names, the commission voted 17-1 in support of recommending testing only once in high school.

Eleven members also voted via Post-it notes to specifically seek more information on using the ACT and ACT Aspire tests. Four members also voted to do so, but with qualifications — Kanawha County school board member Ryan White said before the vote that he’d like counties to be able to choose between the ACT and SAT — and two more said they needed more information on all options.

Commission member Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, also made a motion to say “that we are ready to scrap the Smarter Balanced,” but Courtney Whitehead — Monongalia County Schools’ director of assessment, accountability and school counseling — objected.

“I know I keep being devil’s advocate on this, but I just think it’s really difficult with only one year of data on a test that was brand new, for us to completely say it’s bad,” she said. “I just don’t think we can do that, everything I’ve learned about statistics, you can’t judge it based off of one administration.”

“Let’s do a hand vote, let’s be a man about it,” said fellow commission member Jack Wiseman, a representative of the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts.

Fourteen people raised their hands — joined by Barbara Zingg, a Jefferson County teacher voting by teleconference — in favor of eliminating Smarter Balanced from the conversation, with only Whitehead and Ohio County Schools test coordinator Sue McGuier voting against.