The West Virginia Board of Education may vote Wednesday or Thursday to again change the grade levels in which public school students take end-of-year science standardized tests.
Unlike the federal requirement for states to annually give standardized tests in math and English language arts to grades three through eight and once in high school, federal law only requires annual science standardized testing in one of the elementary school grades, one of the middle grades and one of the high grades.
In the 2014-15 school year, the state school board approved a waiver of its own policy to reduce for that spring West Virginia’s requirement for science exams from grades three through 11 to just in grades four, six and 10.
In 2015-16, the board approved a policy change to make that science testing reduction permanent — alongside making permanent the 2014-15 waiver’s elimination of social studies standardized testing in all grades. The federal government doesn’t require any standardized testing in that subject.
The board’s agenda for this week includes a vote on whether to approve a statewide policy waiver shifting the science-tested grades from fourth to fifth and from sixth to eighth, with grade 10 remaining a tested grade.
“Currently, the state is developing items for a new general summative assessment in science that will be aligned to the state’s new science standards implemented this year,” the agenda says. “Beginning in 2018, the new assessment will be administered in grades 5, 8, and 10; however federal law requires the state to administer and report results and participation in 2017.
“The waiver will permit the state to fulfill federal requirements ... and will allow the state to continue to provide individual reports for science to parents and students for school year 2016-17.”
Through spokeswoman Jessica Hall, the state Department of Education, which the board oversees, declined to provide further details on the waiver and the reasons it’s needed. It also declined comment on the new science test that’s being developed.
“Until the board makes some sort of action on it, the only information we have to provide is what’s in the agenda,” Hall told the Gazette-Mail. “... Once a decision is made, we’ll obviously have some more information for you.”
State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has, in the past, stressed the need to not disrupt the state’s education system. It was unclear Friday how comparable test results would be between this school year and past school years if the tested grades are yet again changed, and changing the type of test in future school years could limit comparability even more greatly.
The state’s new science education standards are the “performance expectations” from the Next Generation Science Standards national blueprint, save for the fact the state board changed the word “rise” to “change” in the sixth-grade performance expectation “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”
On Aug. 31, Education Week reported that 18 states and Washington, D.C., “have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and many plan to officially start testing students on those standards in the spring of 2018.”
The national education news outlet reported that the American Institutes for Research “brought together psychometricians, science education experts, and state leaders for two days of discussion in Washington on how to turn the standards into state summative exams.” West Virginia was among the represented states, alongside California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
“Although states are trying to collaborate and work together, the tests are going to differ across states,” Jon Cohen, president of AIR assessment, told Education Week.
He said the tests would include commonalities, but Education Week reported test results “won’t likely be comparable across states.” The news outlet reported the tests will have few to zero multiple-choice questions, “many questions will use computer simulations and have students conduct virtual experiments” and most states will cover topics from several grades in a single test.
The agenda also states the waiver the state board will vote on would allow “the embedding of field test items for the new general assessment in grades five, eight, and 10, without requiring stand-alone field tests to develop new items for the forthcoming assessments. Field testing informs development of the new assessment.”
The science tests West Virginia has been using have been based on the Westest, the longtime custom Mountain State test that has been replaced for English and math with the national Common Core standards-aligned Smarter Balanced test. There are no Common Core standards for science and social studies.
Carolyn Thomas, the president-elect of the West Virginia Science Teachers Association who will take the leading role at the end of this month, said she didn’t know about the proposed testing changes.
“This definitely sounds like it’s moving in the right direction,” she said of the proposed waiver, saying it seems logical to test in science at the ends of elementary and middle school, and that she hopes the new test will be aligned to the new standards.
Thomas, being a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Jefferson County’s Wildwood Middle, would be among the educators to newly have a tested grade if the waiver is approved.
She said she’d personally be happy to be completely without standardized tests, but she loves the new standards. She said they allow for more in-depth teaching of fewer required topics and provide for better integration of science concepts.
The state board meeting starts at noon Wednesday in Room 353 of Building 6 of the state Capitol complex in Charleston. It will continue 9 a.m. the next day if the agenda isn’t completed Wednesday; it’s unclear when the waiver vote will take place.
Board staff also said it plans to have a pre-meeting meeting starting 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 351, which is the smaller room behind the board table in Room 353. Planned discussion items include the upcoming A-F grading system for entire schools — a system for which the board is expected to set total point values for determining the grades during the regular part of its meeting — and the process board members use to establish their meeting agendas.
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