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Superintendent: Nixing WVEIS next step for W.Va. education

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Department of Education is giving county school administrators control of $7.6 million in technology funding with hopes of better tailoring to student needs.

By allowing each county school board to choose how the budget is distributed, both student and teacher performance could improve, said Joe Panetta, superintendent of finance for the Department of Education.

"This will give the county boards a lot more freedom so that they can expend the funds under their own purchasing procedures and choose when to spend the money and how to spend it," he said. "Before, purchases were made centrally through the state and counties had to submit requests."

Though the money is still regulated by the state's funding formula, this is the first time counties will directly receive it without going through several state procedures.

Many counties have already used up this cycle's portion of funding, which can be used for installing technology infrastructure and purchasing computers, laptops and tablets in addition to providing professional development, according to the state Department of Education.

But one superintendent told legislators last week that while the new policy offers much-needed local flexibility in schools, it's not enough.

"This will help us build our infrastructure and address broadband access and computer-to-student ratios, but there is still a central issue that allows the state to maintain control over data. It's something that goes under the radar that no one wants to talk about," said Randolph County Schools Superintendent Jim Phares said.

The issue, he said, is the West Virginia Education Information System, the state's standardized student data collection program that was implemented in 1990.

Phares claims the system is outdated and limits counties' choice of better software while creating extra work for staff.

"I think they should throw WVEIS in the Kanawha River. It's a last-generation platform that what we're doing just isn't practical," he said. "It's a huge waste of time for teachers and principals to count and verify, and training takes them out of the classroom.

"The expenses are ungodly," Phares said. "You have this hodgepodge of people entering data who innocently miscount a book, and there's this great investigation."

Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, vice chairman of the state's Education Committee, gave Phares' speech an "amen" while he spoke to legislators at the state Capitol last week.

Phares also said Randolph school officials have had free offers of up-to-date software for use in schools, but has had to turn those down to comply with state regulations.

"Most people are worried about getting what's next when it comes to technology," he said. "We're just trying to get what's right now. Technology could be a game-changer for West Virginia schools."

An external statewide education audit Gov. Tomblin requested urges schools to embrace new technologies and expand online learning.

The audit recommends that schools provide students with online access both at school and at home, electronic alternatives to books and training so teachers know modern programs.

"With the audit, it's a good time to take a look at determining where decisions can best be made to impact students, and it's best done at the local level in a collaborative setting with stakeholders like students and parents," Phares said. "The audit isn't a bad thing -- it's a jumping off point. We need to use it as a road map to start dialogue. If we want to go where the audit takes us, we need to make sure certain things happen."

West Virginia is one of the only states in the nation that maintains a single administrative data system that serves all school districts, according to Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

"In addition to the obvious financial benefit to maintaining a single system, this allows West Virginia to be far ahead of the curve in linking student and other education data across program areas, and longitudinally. Many states continue to struggle with implementing single-system solutions or integrating student record tools," she said. "WVEIS also provides a bridge from teachers and administrators to the students they serve."

WVEIS gives teachers access to data about student performance and growth that is extremely valuable, and new early warning systems are being put in place that allow districts to identify students at risk of not completing high school, Cordeiro said.

This year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the state nearly $5 million in grants to assist with data-driven decision-making that hinges on data collected and maintained through WVEIS.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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