First, it is important to point out that I am a strong supporter of educational accountability. I also strongly believe in closing the achievement gap, the primary goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). However, I am not satisfied with the system that was shaped by following the stringent guidelines of the federal legislation. In this article, I will state the facts and spell out what the state is doing to ensure our student’s future success.
Here is the bottom line. The WESTEST is a test of basic skills as required under NCLB. In 2001, West Virginia was federally mandated to create new statewide assessments in a very prescriptive and compliance-ridden manner per the regulations of the 1200 page federal legislation. West Virginia did so by first developing curriculum standards in the content areas of reading, English/language arts and mathematics. Since the WVDE was, at the same time, governed by a strict and rigid Title I Compliance Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, it was strongly suggested that we follow the advice of “national experts” in the development and formatting of those standards. Failure to follow such a process would have jeopardized the receipt of over $100 million of federal funds targeted at the most needy children in our state.
West Virginia completed its required federal mandates and did so with numerous accolades. We were the ninth state to have its NCLB accountability plan approved and, as one federal official indicated to me, were referred to as “a poster child state for NCLB.” In addition, Education Week rated our curriculum standards and accountability system with a national leading grade of “A” for the past three years.
Most importantly, West Virginia teachers and principals have implemented WV Achieves, our state NCLB program, exactly as intended. I applaud the efforts of students, teachers, principals and central office administrators as they have made progress in closing the achievement gaps that exist among student sub-groups. I refer to this as accomplishing the equity mission of NCLB or, in other words, serving the educational needs of typically under-served student populations. Most national educators agree that this is the most significant contribution of NCLB, one that we need to build upon in the future.
But there is another mission in public education that is not being accomplished under NCLB. It is what I refer to as the quality mission. It is about bringing all students to high levels of performance, not just aiming for the middle as is the emphasis of NCLB. It is this mission that is better measured by the NAEP assessment. The regulations and guidelines of NCLB, as feared by numerous national education experts, inhibit the accomplishment of this quality mission since emphasis is placed on simply bringing all students to mastery levels of performance. Little or no mention is made of bringing all students to above mastery and distinguished levels of performance. It is the accomplishment of the quality mission that is essential in order to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. In addition to basic skills, it is the ability to think, to problem solve, to communicate and to use digital technology that ensure our students’ success in the 21st century. So how are we addressing the discrepancies between the two tests? I am extremely proud that West Virginia is the second state in the nation to enter into the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Under the leadership of the WV Board of Education, Governor Joe Manchin, the WV Legislature and numerous other partners including the American Federation of Teachers and the WV Education Association, the partnership has initiated a forward-thinking and ambitious plan to improve the quality of West Virginia’s educational system. The bottom line is that the plan takes the state beyond the minimum thinking of NCLB. The plan includes dramatic improvements in the rigor and relevance of our curriculum, and increases the difficulty level of the state assessment system to align with NAEP. It also improves the quality of professional development in the areas of 21st century content, skills and tools, and supports innovative technology, science and mathematics initiatives.
Before NAEP results were released, we had begun formulating plans realizing that there were negative unintended consequences of NCLB. After the NAEP release, our conviction was confirmed and our actions intensified.
We must be committed to creating the best educational system in the country. If we do so NCLB will take care of itself. I appreciate the opportunity through this response to briefly share these plans. Rarely in public education have I seen such commitment across political and organizational levels as with this Partnership. This uniting of efforts and vision gives me great optimism. West Virginia students have the right to be prepared to compete globally with any student, any place, any time. Through this Partnership, I am personally committed to seeing that this happens.