CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After delays that officials attributed to standardized test and federal school accountability changes, the West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday fully answered Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s request in his January 2014 State of the State address for it to establish an A-F grading system for entire schools.
The state school board’s vote to approve the school ratings was 7-0. Tom Campbell and Gayle Manchin were the only board members absent.
The A-F system has received opposition from superintendents, principals and teachers.
“The West Virginia Education Association and its members have opposed the A-F grading system from the beginning,” Dale Lee, president of that school employee union, said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have spoken before the state board numerous times to express our members’ concerns over a misguided representation of what education is about.”
Most of schools’ letter grades are based on student scores, and their growth in those scores, on the annual Smarter Balanced end-of-year standardized tests in math and English language arts. That test has received criticism from those same groups.
“The school letter grade is a means of narrowly defining schools’ success chiefly based upon student standardized test scores in select subjects,” Lee said. “Our schools have too many variables, too many moving parts, too many different components that make up what happens each day in our public schools. It is foolish to believe that student test scores are clearly and singularly connected to the school and the community.”
The A-F grading system doesn’t directly take into account student poverty. Education experts say socioeconomic characteristics, like family income, are the biggest factor in how students score on standardized exams.
State school board literature describing the A-F system says it’s “designed to provide parents and communities with an annual update and ensure parents have objective information on their students’ academic achievement,” and that the “grades of A through F are used so results can easily be understood by parents and the community.”
But the A-F grades themselves are based on a complex scoring system that involves multiple measures of success, including points awarded for three ways of calculating growth in math standardized test scores and English test scores.
The A-F grades are themselves based on a 1,200-point scale for elementary and middle schools and a 1,500-point scale for high schools.
The letter grades schools receive aren’t based on what another state may consider to be an A, B, C, D or F. Instead, the state school board used a normal distribution, or bell curve, to initially set the “cut scores” for what ranges of points on the 1,200- and 1,500-point scales corresponded to a certain letter grade.
That normal statistical distribution — used only to set the cut scores for the first year of A-F grades, with future increases to cut scores planned if significantly more schools become A’s and B’s — was divided into stanines.
“We tried to remove the subjectivity completely from this particular analysis here,” said state school board President Mike Green. “And the bell curve system that we’ve come up with, I believe, is clearly a way to remove the subjectivity.
“The most important thing, and I want to come back to, really, the key here, is that our single focus has been and will always be on improving student achievement,” Green said. “That No. 1, and we think that this is a very, very clear way for the public and the parents to clearly understand what’s going on in their schools.”
Green had a document labeled A-F talking points in front of him as he answered reporters’ questions Wednesday. He wouldn’t say where the talking points came from.
The state board did shift the bell curve in a more positive direction for schools.
Of 668 public schools, 356, about 53 percent, received C’s, which the A-F system defines as “acceptable student performance.”
Career and technical centers and Barbour County’s Volga-Century Elementary, a small school set to close at the end of this school year, didn’t receive letter grades.
Only 15 schools, or 2 percent, received F’s, while 45, or 7 percent, received A’s, more than would be expected had the state school board used a pure normal distribution.
The Department of Education is undertaking a public relations campaign surrounding the new system. A department employee, who declined to give her name to the Gazette-Mail, showed up at the WVEA news conference Tuesday to “listen.”
You can see schools’ “report cards,” including their letter grades and data that led to that grade, at mywvschool.org.
Kanawha County’s Riverside High was the only school in the state to get an F, due to a provision in the system that automatically gives schools F’s if they don’t give at least 90 percent of their students the end-of-year standardized tests. It received 679 of 1,500 points — a score that normally would grant it a C.
In a written statement, Riverside Principal Valery Harper said her school missed the participation rate by only 16 students, but she said there was “a lot of contradicting data that says otherwise.”
Furthermore, she alleged that the education department failed to inform the school that “the participation rate calculations changed,” and she said the school didn’t find evidence that the department had mentioned the change until the state board made updates to Policy 2320 in June — after the testing window had closed.
“We will not quietly accept this letter grade as a measure of our school,” Harper wrote.
“If a school fails to test 10 percent or more of the student population that should be tested, the school performance grade is not a valid representation of overall school performance,” department spokeswoman Kristin Anderson wrote in an emailed response Wednesday to Harper.
Anderson pointed to a section of Policy 2320 that she said didn’t change in June. While it doesn’t specifically state the 90 percent threshold, it says “schools not meeting established participation rates will be subject to grade modification.”
Here’s a list, alphabetical by county, of the schools that got A’s and F’s.
1. Berkeley County’s Musselman Middle
2. Berkeley County’s Spring Mills Middle
4. Braxton County High
5. Brooke County’s Colliers Primary
6. Doddridge County High
7. Gilmer County’s Normantown Elementary
8. Hampshire County’s Slanesville Elementary
9. Hancock County’s New Manchester Elementary
10. Hardy County’s East Hardy High
11. Harrison County’s Bridgeport Middle
12. Harrison County’s Bridgeport High
13. Jackson County’s Evans Elementary
14. Jackson County’s Ripley High
15. Kanawha County’s Belle Elementary
16. Kanawha County’s Holz Elementary
17. Kanawha County’s Kenna Elementary
18. Kanawha County’s Shoals Elementary
19. Kanawha County’s George Washington High
20. Logan County’s South Man Elementary
21. Marion County’s East Dale Elementary
22. Marion County’s Pleasant Valley Elementary
23. Marion County’s Fairview Middle
24. Marion County’s Monongah Middle
25. Marion County’s East Fairmont High
26. Marion County’s Fairmont Senior High
27. Mason County’s Wahama High
28. Mineral County’s Frankfort High
29. Mingo County’s Gilbert Elementary
30. Mingo County’s Gilbert Middle
31. Monongalia County’s Mountaineer Middle
32. Nicholas County’s Mt. Nebo Elementary
33. Ohio County’s Steenrod Elementary
34. Ohio County’s Bridge Street Middle
35. Ohio County’s Triadelphia Middle
36. Pendleton County’s Brandwine Elementary
37. Pendleton County Middle/High School
38. Pleasants County’s St. Mary’s Elementary
39. Putnam County’s Winfield Elementary
40. Putnam County’s Hurricane Middle
41. Putnam County’s Winfield High
42. Taylor County’s Flemington Elementary
43. Webster County’s Hacker Valley Elementary
44. Wood County’s Gihon Elementary
45. Wood County’s Williamstown Elementary
1. Barbour County’s Mt. Vernon Elementary
2. Boone County’s Jeffrey-Spencer Elementary
3. Clay County’s H. E. White Elementary
4. Fayette County’s Valley High
5. Kanawha County’s Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary
6. Kanawha County’s Riverside High
7. Lincoln County’s West Hamlin Elementary
8. Logan County’s Man Middle
9. Marion County’s Watson Elementary
10. McDowell County’s Southside K-8
11. McDowell County’s Mount View High
12. Nicholas County’s Dixie Elementary
13. Preston County’s Kingwood Elementary
14. Raleigh County’s Lester Elementary
15. Randolph County’s Valley Head Elementary
Reach Ryan Quinn at [email protected], facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.