Testing commission favors ACT, but state not releasing final recommendations

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Testing commission favors ACT, but state not releasing final recommendations
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The day before West Virginia lawmakers planned to start the 2016 session with anti-Common Core bills on their minds, the state schools superintendent’s Commission on Assessment again appeared ready to recommend replacing the current Smarter Balanced standardized tests with ones purchased from ACT.

But the state Department of Education, which Superintendent Michael Martirano leads, still isn’t publicizing what it says will be “final recommendations” from the 26-member commission. Martirano, who said he has purposefully been largely absent from the commission meetings so as not to interfere with the members’ discussions, came in at the end of Tuesday’s meeting and told the members, who’ve met three times since December, that they should think of themselves as an “in perpetuity group.”

He noted the ongoing controversy among lawmakers over the state’s standards, and said the state needs to consider whether tests align to the standards. Martirano has said the new education requirements — which the state Board of Education approved last month — are no longer based on Common Core, despite them containing mostly identical language, and legislative leaders say they’re seriously considering using legislation to change the standards further.

“Since a lot of that is under concern right now … we can’t bury our head in the sand and say that we’re gonna just say that ‘This is what we’re going to do, and this why’ without a thoughtful review,” Martirano said.

He said he wants the commission to identify the pros and cons of various tests, and he and the state school board need to ultimately settle the related issues of standards, testing and school accountability.

“Everything right now is under fire, and it behooves us to stay out in front of things, to gather information and to vet these things,” he said.

The commission will provide its recommendations to Martirano, who will make recommendations to the state school board.

When asked Tuesday why “final recommendations” weren’t yet being publicized, Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel noted that while the fact that the commission favors ACT was strengthened by Tuesday’s discussion, she said the commission hasn’t considered other testing options that “maybe we’re not fully aware of right now.”

Discussions Tuesday among commission members — who include teacher union representatives, county school board members, county superintendents and others — and representatives from the ACT and SAT did highlight that studies of how well either test can adequately measure whether West Virginia’s students are meeting the state’s new standards have not been finished.

Paul Weeks, senior vice president of client relations for ACT, 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, to which the ACT is well aligned.

Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the education department, also pressed ACT and SAT representatives Tuesday with questions about data privacy for Mountain State students taking their tests. She said a law the Legislature passed in 2014 increased student privacy protections beyond that required by the federal government, and the ACT refused to sign West Virginia’s resulting student privacy agreement regarding the Compass test. Hutchens said Compass, which helped determine whether West Virginia high school juniors needed to take developmental courses in their senior year, wasn’t given this school year due to the impasse.

Last week, a majority of the testing commission’s members recommended moving away from the Smarter Balanced tests, limiting end-of-year testing in high school to only one grade and specifically exploring using ACT and ACT Aspire, which is offered for grades 3 through 10, as freely provided statewide assessments.

Despite that, SAT representatives, who presented at last week’s meeting alongside an ACT representative, returned again Tuesday to, alongside ACT, provide more information about their offerings.

Daniel said SAT representatives were allowed to provide more info Tuesday despite last week’s decision because, while 11 members said they wanted more information from ACT, others continued to express an interest in the SAT as well. Commission member Ryan White, a Kanawha County school board member, specifically said he wanted more information on the SAT, expressing support for allowing counties to choose between ACT and SAT.

Two members said they needed more information on all options, but more information on Smarter Balanced wasn’t presented Tuesday.

Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Daniel drew on a large pad of paper on an easel two columns to compare and contrast SAT and ACT, and asked commission members for input.

“I know we could go on listing strengths and weaknesses,” commission member Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, said after a while. “… I think we’re ready to make a recommendation for which one of these we should go with.”

But Daniel noted there remain many unanswered questions, and after Martirano spoke, the commission adjourned.