W.Va. Standardized Test Questioned

Editor, News-Register:

I would like to respond to the article titled “Local Schools Get ‘F'” that recently appeared in the Sunday News-Register.

Being a retired teacher and principal in the Brooke County School system, it infuriates me when the media give the impression that teachers and schools are mainly to blame for the lack of student yearly progress. However, like they say in politics, there is enough blame to go around.

Over the years, teachers, principals, individual schools and entire school systems have been criticized because students have not made adequate yearly progress, or “AYP.”

It seems to me that officials and agencies at the higher levels of education – state and federal – are quick to cast blame, particularly on teachers, when certain educational results are not favorable. I have very seldom heard or read where these top educational geniuses, with supposedly exceptional intellect and creative powers, ever identify and offer solutions to the problems affecting our failing school system. They remind me of the students who excel in math but can’t balance their checkbooks.

These individuals who sit at the top, with their PhDs and mandate what is required in our schools, have the smarts but lack common sense.

If you recall, Follansbee Middle School was one of the 24 schools in the Northern Panhandle that made the West Virginia Department’s list of failed schools due to students not making AYP. If the state’s five northern counties have that many schools identified as failures, I wonder what the other 50 state counties school systems’ look like. Northern Panhandle schools usually do very well when compared to county schools south of the Panhandle.

With so many schools failing to meet AYP standards, something is drastically wrong. Teachers are not performing; student expectations are too high; or the state achievement test is unfair and invalid. I believe it’s a combination of the latter two reasons.

Let’s examine a typical school day at Follansbee Middle School that will better illustrate the problem. The school’s present enrollment is approximately 500 students. Fifth grade classes are basically self-contained, except when students leave for physical education, practical and fine arts, and the exploratory program. Students in grades 6-8 change classes more frequently. Students are in school for 7 hours, or 420 minutes.

These 420 minutes are allocated as follows: Math, science and social studies receive 42 instructional minutes per day. Language Arts/reading receives 84 minutes, or half the school day. The remaining 210 daily minutes are spent in non-core areas, such as physical education, practical and fine areas, exploratory, one elective, a 40- minute lunch period, and 18 minutes for class changes.

The elective program allows students, depending on ability, to select basic instruction in a foreign language (Spanish or French), social studies or computers. The exploratory program includes choices in areas such as band, chorus, yearbook, bulleting boards, school paper, student council, weight lifting and intra-murals,

There are those who advocate the so called “middle school concept.” A philosophy that tends to basically believe in the education and development of well-rounded middle grade level students by exposing them to a wide variety of learning activities. That’s all well and good! However, at the end of the school year, students, teachers, and schools are judged on certain educational gains. The judgment is entirely based on how well students perform in the core subject areas, not on how well-rounded and inclusive their education is.

It is difficult for me to accept the fact that most, and I emphasize most, students at the school are only receiving 42 instructional minutes in math. This represents a mere 10 percent of the 420-minute school day. I don’t know for sure, but I would venture to say at least 25 percent of the state’s achievement test deals with math questions. This probably is true for each of the other three core subjects.

Since 100 percent of the entire achievement test is directly or indirectly related to critical thinking and the basic core subjects, why is it that only 50 percent of the school day is spent teaching the core subjects? Why is the remaining 50 percent of the school day allocated to activities outside the core curriculum which never includes any questions on the end of the year test?

In all my years in education, I have never seen a question on the achievement test pertaining to physical education, art, music, band, chorus or any other activities outside the core curriculum. I am not questioning that these non-core activities have some educational value.

However, what I am questioning is the validity of the state’s achievement tests. I learned in a college test and measurement course that any evaluating tool is only valid if it measures what it is designed to measure. Consequently, since the state’s achievement test primarily measures only core subject material and fails to measure any gains related to non-core activities, which consumes 50 percent of the school day, leads me to believe the test is unfair and invalid.

Due to Follansbee Middle School’s daily instructional format and lack of core subject instructional minutes, teachers are not given ample time to thoroughly teach the the required yearly core subject material. As a result, though no fault of the teachers, students are not prepared well enough to make the expected yearly gains set forth by the West Virginia Department of Education and its invalid test.

Robert Guio