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Ohio County school officials haggle over test scores

WHEELING, W.Va. — If you listen to Ohio County Schools administrators, the district performed exceptionally well on the 2014-15 West Virginia General Summative Assessment, as it finished first in the state in the percentage of students proficient in English/language arts and second in those proficient in math.

But if you listen to some members of the Ohio County Board of Education, finishing in the top two statewide in both subjects really is nothing to brag about. Board member Tim Birch offered this opinion of education in West Virginia during the meeting: “The whole state’s in the toilet.”

“West Virginia’s 47th among the states” when it comes to education, Birch said near the end of a 75-minute discussion on test scores during Monday’s Ohio County Board of Education meeting. “I want us to push to be way ahead of that.”

His comments, along with questions from board President Shane Mallett, show the issue that currently exists between professional educators and the general public: How can a school district be content with scoring at or near the top of a state, West Virginia, that consistently ranks near the bottom nationwide in public education?

The answer is anything but clear, as many educators in the audience during Monday’s meeting took offense to every question asked by Mallett as to why only 37 percent of the county’s students attained proficiency in math, and why math proficiency levels overall have been trending downward in recent years.

Those same educators had enthusiastically clapped earlier when Sue McGuier, the county’s director of assessment and federal grants, and Student Services Director Mary Lu Hutchins gave a lengthy presentation on the test scores and other assessments they utilize to measure student achievement, highlighting the county’s scores as being higher than the state and national averages not only on the General Summative Assessment, but also advanced placement tests, the ACT and the SAT.

One of the problems with the Smarter Balanced test is that there’s no way for states to compare their scores to others, McGuier said. But Hutchins said through her research, she’s found some interesting numbers.

“In reading, the average level of proficiency in the United States is … 52 percent nationally in reading scores. The average score nationally in math right now is 24 percent proficiency. So even though we’re really not technically comparing state to state, because you … have different cut scores, nationally we’re there,” Hutchins said. “And I’m really only concerned about one thing: Are our students ready for the next level? … If we are to ask our teachers that, for the most part they are, if they come to school.”

Along with a 37 percent proficiency rate in mathematics on the Smarter Balanced test, the district saw 59 percent of its students score proficient in reading, which was tops in West Virginia.

Hutchins also spent an extended period of time explaining how the new test, which she helped to develop, gauges students in grades three through 11 not on what they know, as old statewide assessments did, but instead on “how do you think about your own thinking.”

She continually reinforced that the Smarter Balanced test is unlike anything that students or teachers have dealt with before. Hutchins referred to the new testing method as a “shift in how students learn,” meaning that instead of just answering a question, students also have to show their work and then explain the thought process for how they reached that answer.

Hutchins said the entire process behind the test will help prepare students for college and also the challenges of life.

“It’s quite an amazing process, and that is why our children will be prepared for college, because we are now teaching things that are not just facts, but how do you analyze those facts and how do you use them to make good decisions,” she said.

For Mallett, the board’s president, much work needs to be done to improve test scores and educate all children.

“It’s a sad day when we clap for 37 percent proficiency,” he said.

He also questioned if the county’s overall numbers were bolstered by the elementary schools, as test scores decline starting in middle school through high school, and why more is not being done at the middle school level to help student growth.

Mallett then referenced a similar presentation on test scores held about a year ago, where he said McGuier and Hutchins made promises to offer a specific plan of action to the board to improve test scores after the 2013-14 WESTEST 2 scores were released.

“Again, we were told last year at this same time that everything was great, smiles all around and applause, but we have not heard as a board what we’re going to do and what specific plans … clear plans that we have to address these situations,” he said.

Mallett also asked both McGuier and Hutchins if they believed having 37 percent of students proficient in math should be considered a success for Ohio County Schools.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a success, I would say we’re growing with it,” Hutchins replied, noting the first year of a test serves as a baseline score. “From this year forward, parents will be able to take their child’s scores and see whether that child is achieving at a solid rate. … Last year’s scores don’t tell us anything yet.”

That will only hold true if West Virginia continues to use the test. One of the main concerns for the administrators is that the test may be changing, as West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Michael Martirano has appointed a commission to recommend either staying with the Smarter Balanced assessment or switching to something else.

If that happens, then results from this past year and also the 2015-16 test to be taken over the next several months will essentially be meaningless.

“If they don’t stay with the test, we’ll be doing this all over again,” Birch said.

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