State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Matriano met with the county superintendents last week to discuss changes which will take place in the education system next year.
Included in those changes – the switch to West Virginia College and Career Readiness Standards from Next Generation Standards, a change in standardized testing and the school calendar.
Pocahontas County Superintendent Terrence Beam said the sessions with Matriano were helpful in giving him insight into what the state department of education will expect in the future.
The first change began December 17, 2015, when the West Virginia Board of Education voted to repeal Common Core Standards [Next Generation] and to reduce standardized testing.
“They repealed the Next Generation Standards and now they’re going to adopt what is going to be called the West Virginia College and Career Readiness Standards,” Beam said. “It’s standards just like the Next Generation Standards with a couple of exceptions. They’re going to implement cursive writing back into the curriculum, along with multiplication tables. They didn’t really make a lot of changes. About ninety percent of what was in Common Core is still going to be in this program.”
Common Core has been under a lot of fire and was repealed or completely rejected by multiple states, prior to West Virginia taking action.
While there have always been sets of standards for schools to follow, what set Common Core apart was that the government took the driver’s seat and tried to implement standards according to results from public surveys.
“When the Common Core first started to get a lot of steam, they did a lot of surveys with businesses,” Beam said. “They’d ask businesses ‘what do you want students knowing when they come to the workforce?’ One of the main things they said they wanted was for students to be able to work together.”
A majority of the standards worked in the classrooms, including group activities which had students teaching and helping each other with problem solving.
Issues arose with Common Core once the state implemented Smarter Balance Assessments, a standardized test which was meant to test the students on Common Core Standards, but was too hard for the students to take.
“The Smarter Balance Assessment is so difficult for these kids to take and there’s so much reading involved and you’re limited on time in some ways,” Beam said. “Teachers aren’t teaching the way that the Smarter Balance test is being given, and that’s not a criticism of the teachers. There are these great big narratives and problem solving things that they have to do as groups, and most classes aren’t going to operate that way.”
The Smarter Balance included a group activity which was part of each student’s final assessment grade. The test was also given online which had an added difficulty for the schools due to bandwidth issues and computer shortages.
The assessments are designed to last four hours with sections on math, English/ language arts and science. The students have approximately eight hours of standardized testing each year.
“It sounds like you’re testing kids for four days,” Beam said. “No. You’re testing them for a total of eight hours, and I think that’s kind of a misunderstanding that people have. They think because we talk about the testing window starting in April and running until June –we’re not testing for two months. We have a lot of kids and they have to put them on the computers and it uses up bandwidth so you have to spread it out.”
Dr. Martirano told the superintendents one of his efforts in the coming years is to lessen the amount of time students are taking standardized tests to two percent of the school year.
While the Smarter Balance Assessment will be used next year, it will not include the group activity and it will not be renewed after 2016-2017. Dr. Martirano is looking into other tests to replace Smarter Balance, including ACT.
“When you think of ACT, you think of high school, but ACT does offer a test for all grade levels,” Beam said. “So that is a possible vendor that they are considering and getting away from Smarter Balance all together. Smarter Balance has left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and so I think they are looking at other options.”
Beam said he feels the change in standards will be helpful to the students next year and believes it is better than completely throwing the standards out and staring over.
“Do you have any idea how much money it costs to design and implement a whole new set of standards?” he asked, “because if you do that, you have to change all these manuals. All your textbooks have already been adopted based on the Common Core Standards. You’ve done all this training and sent teachers all over the country to get training on how to teach this, so you’re going to have to do all this all over again for the same purpose.”
Instead of throwing out standards which may cause problems with some, Beam said it is important to have some common sense when it comes to education.
“Teaching is mostly common sense,” he said. “We have a lot of really good teachers in our county and they know how to teach. I think they get offended sometimes, that they feel the government has come in and said ‘this is what you’re going to teach,’ and ‘this is how you’re going to teach it.’ We don’t need that. One of the things that a lot of people misunderstand about Common Core is that it was not designed to tell teachers how to teach their class. It gave them some options, some suggestions, but we do that anyway.
“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of difference with this,” he concluded. “I think what’s more promising is getting away from the Smarter Balance Assessment and assessing our students with something much more fair.”
The new standards will go into effect for the 2016-2017 school year.
The superintendents also discussed the school calendar and ways to improve the 180-day policy.
The state legislature has a bill which will allow school systems to go by the number of minutes students are in school instead of using the 180-day formula. Elementary school students are supposed to have 315 minutes of instruction per day. That equals 56,700 minutes. The bill calls for roughly the same number of minutes per school year.
“Here’s where we benefit from it,” Beam said. “I’ve had the principals send me their number of total minutes they’re teaching in each grade level. We’re over on elementary kids. We’re teaching more than 315 minutes so if we’re teaching 330 minutes, for example, we might not have to get in 180 days to get our minutes.”
The downside is the high school does not have extra or “bank” minutes and the school system cannot make one school go longer in the year than other schools.
“With our bus schedules the way they are, it’s hard to get more minutes into the day for the high school,” Beam said. “All schools have to be able to meet this regulation. You can’t say, Hillsboro got in their days so they’re finished May 25 and the high school has to go to June 5 or something like that. It has to be a county program that works as far as the number of minutes per day.”
The school system would also be hurt by early dismissal days and two-and three-hour delays. Currently, those days are considered a full-day of instruction, but if the new law passes, they would be deducted for the minutes missed.
With discussion on the state-wide calendar taking place, Beam has the county school calendar on his mind, as well. The county calendar policy is currently on public comment and once it is returned, the board of education and the board office will meet with employees and the public to vote on the best calendar for 2016-2017.
While the calendar will include 180 days in case the new “minute” law doesn’t pass, Beam is certain of one thing that will definitely be in all the proposed calendars – a week for Thanksgiving break.
“It is changing a little bit because last November we scheduled to have school the first two days during deer season, prior to Thanksgiving and it turned out to be a very high absentee rate for both employees and for students,” he said. “There were days at the high school where we had a third of the students there and so it kind of made a mockery of the fact that you can call it a school day, but you’re not really doing anything.”
Beam was discouraged by what took place because the calendar used for the 2015-2016 school year was voted on by employees and won over the other two options by almost 2 to 1. Although he was asked by employees to ask for waivers for the two days, Beam said he declined because it would defeat all the effort put into passing the calendar last year.
“I chose not to do that because we put out a survey that a lot of people supported having school on those days,” he said. “I felt like if I went against that, then people would say ‘what was the purpose of us doing a survey or doing a vote because you’re going to do whatever you want anyway.’ We went ahead and followed through with what the vote said.”
In order to assure the calendar meets the county’s expectations, Beam said he is forming a new committee and the board will hold public meetings to discuss the best options for the 2016-2017 school year.
The public meetings will be 6 p.m., prior to regular board of education meetings in March. One will be in Green Bank and the other, in Hillsboro. Beam said notices will be printed in The Pocahontas Times closer to the meeting date.