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.