Common Core Suffers Defeat in West Virginia

by | November 17, 2015

By Ryan Quinn

The West Virginia Board of Education Friday moved forward with a repeal of the state's current Common Core-based K-12 math and English language arts standards, in order to replace them with a version the state schools superintendent says isn't based off the national standards blueprint.

Michael Martirano said the new standards would go into effect next school year if state school board members approve them. That vote is expected in December, after a 30-day public comment period that began Friday.

That means the changes could be approved before the start of another session of the state Legislature, where members -- including Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer and a candidate for governor -- have said they want to repeal the Common Core-based standards.

It was unclear Friday how greatly the new standards -- which Clayton Burch, chief academic officer for the state education department, called a "complete overhaul" and improvement over the current standards -- differ from West Virginia's current standards, which were first implemented statewide last school year after a roughly four-year phase-in process.

Burch said earlier this week that the policy changes regarding the new standards were still being written after the department received West Virginia University's report from the statewide "Academic Spotlight" review of the standards. Educators convened to review comments submitted as part of that review last month.

The new standards -- more than 160 pages for math, and nearly 100 pages for English language arts, though Burch said they're simpler than the current standards -- were first posted online Thursday night. State school board President Mike Green and Vice President Lloyd Jackson said they hadn't yet had time to do so read through the new standards, but would be during the 30-day public comment period.

State Department of Education officials said they'll have to examine whether the current Smarter Balanced exams, which were first given statewide last school year and are aligned to the Common Core standards, would still be an accurate measure of whether students are learning the new standards. Martirano said he also wasn't sure of the possible impacts on textbooks and other instructional materials aligned to the Common Core standards that are currently used by West Virginia schools. The state still plans to give the Smarter Balanced this spring.

Martirano said he would form a "superintendent's commission on assessments" to explore what tests should be used, and hopes to recommend by the end of the school year how the testing will work. He said the commission will include lawmakers and representatives from K-12 and higher education.

The state school board and education department's distancing from the Common Core-based standards comes despite education officials' defense of the standards during the legislative session earlier this year, when lawmakers attempted to repeal them -- although department officials argued back then that the vast majority of the current standards are the same as West Virginia's previous, non-Common-Core-based ones.

State education officials greatly opposed the proposed legislation to repeal the standards, saying it could disrupt West Virginia's entire K-12 system and that it would cost more than $100 million. The state school board even called an emergency meeting to denounce the bill.

Martirano, who noted the "politicizing" and controversy over Common Core while advocating the new standards to the board, suggested that adopting the new standards wouldn't cause such disruption.

"Because our teachers provided input, we're hoping this is a seamless transition to the more rigorous standards that they can build upon," he said. "So we're going to be providing training and support for that to occur. ... Usually this is thrust top-down. This is germinated from the bottom up."

The House of Delegates passed a bill this year to repeal the current standards, but failed to reconcile that iteration with a Senate version that would've required only a study. Following that, the state Department of Education launched the Academic Spotlight review anyway in partnership with WVU and other entities. The website asked for criticism of specific standards -- something Martirano said he didn't receive from state lawmakers who tried to repeal the standards.

Despite the fact that more than 90 percent of comments supported the education requirements, the report -- drawing on analysis of the comments by 48 educators, including West Virginia teachers, school administrators and college faculty -- recommended revisions to about a hundred of the standards, from wording clarifications to a few deletions.

Burch spoke to the board Friday about how implementing the recommendations caused a "ripple effect" that impacted other standards.

Martirano said the new standards, dubbed the West Virginia College- and Career-Readiness Standards, would be more rigorous than the current standards, and include additions like required cursive handwriting instruction and calculus standards. He said schools could offer calculus under the current standards, but the new standards would let counties offer the class using consistent statewide standards.

Burch also noted that while the current standards require students to learn "times tables," the new version would make that requirement clear.

Jackson said he and others have consistently heard about the need for times tables and cursive writing instruction, and asked officials about the distinction between the phrase "times tables" and "multiplication tables." He also asked if the public would recognize "joined italics" -- one of the two possible types of cursive that Charlotte Webb, prekindergarten- through fifth-grade English language arts coordinator for the education department, said third and fourth graders would be required to learn -- as traditional cursive.

Webb explained that traditional cursive has more loops, while joined italics allows students to pick up their writing utensils while creating a word, though letters must still be connected. She said officials had heard concerns from grandmothers who said their grandchildren can't read the cards they send, as well as worries about whether students could read documents like the Declaration of Independence. She said department officials wanted to give students formal writing skills without dictating which of the two methods teachers should use.

Two amendments the board approved Friday for the proposed standards sought to strengthen cursive writing and teaching of multiplication tables, said board member Beverly Kingery. Most board discussion Friday also focused on those two issues. Board members Gayle Manchin and Tina Combs did not attend the meeting.

The state school board Friday also put out on 30-day comment period policies that would make permanent previous reductions to K-12 science and social studies standardized testing.

Last school year, the board approved eliminating standardized summative exams -- those that test students' knowledge around the end of the school year -- in social studies for all grades, and approved reducing science standardized summative tests from grades three through 11 to just grades four, six and 10. But that waiver only decreased testing last school year; the policy change the board furthered Friday would make the reductions permanent.

For math and English, the federal government requires exams in grades three through eight, plus 11th grade. For science, it requires the tests at least once at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It has no such requirements for social studies.

David Banks, superintendent of Morgan County Schools and president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, said most of the schools superintendents of state's 55 counties, along with most of the directors of the eight Regional Education Service Agencies, attended Friday's meeting with him. He and others expressed concern to the board over the current standardized tests, and said his organization supports the teachers union-backed idea of removing standardized testing for math and English for grades nine and 10. The current proposed testing reduction wouldn't go that far.

(c)2015 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)