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No more 'teaching to the test' in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If West Virginia had not gotten an exemption from federal No Child Left Behind regulations last week, all of the state's students would have been expected to achieve proficient scores in reading and math on next year's standardized tests, a standard the state has not been close to reaching in the past.

In the 2011-12 school year, only about 49 percent of the state's students were scoring at proficient levels in reading, while about 48 percent of students were proficient in math.

"Had we not received this waiver, 100 percent of our children would have had to be at mastery level in 2014. That's not possible in any world," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, a union representing teachers.

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, gave states until the 2013-14 school year to have all students at proficient levels.

Having been freed from the federal regulations, the West Virginia Department of Education is promising a state-developed plan that puts less focus on standardized tests. The plan will still use test scores but not as the primary factor in determining a school's performance.

Instead of focusing on yearly changes in schools' standardized test scores, as is done under No Child Left Behind, schools will now be flagged as one of five classifications to determine student growth.

"Maybe in the third grade, you weren't scoring at a high level, but how much did you grow throughout that school year? It's about that growth -- not just have you met this random, arbitrary number of proficiency?" said Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

The new "growth model" will incorporate several factors, including attendance and dropout rates and the gap between subgroups of students and the general student population. Education officials say the system will be more transparent and more accurate at identifying student and school needs, and it will better direct federal funding where it's most needed.

For education leaders in West Virginia, the new model, scheduled to kick in by next school year, means less dependence on standardized tests and less pressure to get students to score the right number -- something critics have long said burdened teachers since then-President George W. Bush introduced the education law more than a decade ago.

"There's less emphasis on the testing, and we're actually looking at the growth of kids. It will no longer be looking at a school or class and saying X number of students have to be mastery," Lee said. "There will still be apprehension from teachers anytime you use standardized tests for something other than what they were designed to do, but this is much better."

'Teaching to the test'

Christine Campbell was teaching elementary students in West Virginia when No Child Left Behind kicked in 12 years ago.

"It was pretty nuts how things were interpreted. Everyone panicked right off the bat and thought, 'Here's another mandate we have to deal with,'" said Campbell, now president of the state's branch of the union American Federation of Teachers.

"It built up the testing requirements and, today, our teachers are still really frustrated with over-testing. Not only do students take the WESTEST once a year, but there are writing assessments and benchmarks," she said. "There's so much pressure."

Critics of No Child Left Behind said that pressure is to blame for massive test-cheating scandals across the country and has led to "teaching to the test" - a practice where curriculum is too heavily focused on preparing students for the standardized tests.

Beyond the pressure, Campbell said, the problem, is the "yes-or-no, black-and-white" nature of the test and its implications.

"Standardized testing doesn't really tell you where [students] are as far as their ability to process and think critically and problem solve," she said. "We're just saying, 'Here's a test in front of you, and you're going to do your best.' We're not addressing stress levels or their home life."

Another issue is students' knowledge that the test has no bearing on their grades. Just last year, when Campbell was teaching middle school in Pocahontas County, she often was faced with questions like, "Does this affect me going to the eighth grade?" and "Will this hurt my letter grade?"

"There's no accountability for them. Testing has become so prevalent in their activity, and students get so frustrated by what it says about what they're able to do, they just give up on it," she said. "I've seen kids lose interest in even trying because they don't see any value in it."

Lee said poor test scores ultimately come down on the teacher, with pressure to hit the mark from principals, superintendents and themselves. A test-driven curriculum only hurts the students and narrows their pool of knowledge, he said.

"We need to get back to valuing the teacher's expertise in the classroom and realizing that it's not a one-size-fits-all curriculum," he said. "Teachers need to assess where their students are and get them where they need to be, rather than mandate every student in West Virginia be on the same page on the same day. Students learn at different rates."

The state has created a new assessment that will replace the WESTEST by the 2014-15 school year. It is based on state-developed Next Generation content standards that align with the national Common Core standards. The new set of standards touts the same primary goal as the state's new accountability system: to better prepare students for college and the workforce.

The state has used the WESTEST, or the West Virginia Education Standards Test, to assess third- through eleventh-graders since 2003.

The Next Generation standards have already been implemented in the state's kindergarten and first-grade classes, and second-grade teachers are rolling the program out now. By fall 2014, every grade will have made the change.

Campbell said she's concerned that there hasn't been enough time for teachers to tackle the new curriculum before the test is implemented.

"If you don't give enough time to develop a solid curriculum that makes sense, and you throw in a new test . . . there's panic. You're not going to see results until there's been time with the standards in the system. You're basically setting people up to fail," she said. "What, exactly, is 'career ready' and how are you going to test that? That's determined by who? What I think a child should be ready to do is probably not quite the same as someone else.

"I hope this test is better and actually meets the expectations," she said.

More than just a test score

Piedmont Elementary School, in Charleston, has steered away from the culture of relying on test scores and assessments as much as it can, while still abiding by the guidelines laid out by No Child Left Behind.

Students at Piedmont don't receive report cards. Instead, they receive "narrative reports."

"A letter grade tells you nothing -- neither does a test score. What does it mean? It's so subjective," said Steve Knighton, principal at Piedmont. "We thought this was a better method of assessing kids; to tell the parents not only what their students' skills are, but the reasons why they were or were not able to be successful."

The school uses the alternative grading method to measure students' progress every nine weeks, and Knighton said teachers, parents and students are reaping benefits.

"Now, you have specific information about which skill in math they struggled with," he said. "Everyone needs to take a more specific look at a child's learning. This is a holistic look and a cumulative look. Learning is so much more than just taking a test and getting a percentage."

Knighton was still unclear about all  the details of the new state-developed plan for accountability, but said, since its primary goals are "more local control" and "better individualized student growth," he's hoping for improvements in the way schools are monitored.

"At the local level," he said, "we do not know what the waiver means except that it's eliminated the No Child Left Behind format -- but now you're going to be forced to take a hard look."

Amelia Courts, an assistant state superintendent who worked on developing the waiver request, said No Child Left Behind led to some teachers focusing only on hitting the proficient mark and not striving for more. She said the West Virginia plan was created to avoid that.

"We were just focused on meeting that test-score goal, rather than the school or district or teacher goals, because that's what we were awarded or punished for, and that certainly influenced the way we all think," she said. "We were just focused on getting kids, quote, 'above the bar.' So this is a big shift because we're moving away from that 'just mastery' approach.

"The bottom line is it's much more clear and transparent about what a school's designation really means, because it's not just yes or no," Courts said. "Beyond that, one of the other big pluses is that the reward and the support for schools are also differentiated across those five levels."

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


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