CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice announced with pride during his State of the State address that he had received a personal call from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, confirming the federal agency had approved West Virginia’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.
What Justice didn’t elaborate on was that U.S. Education Department insisted on — and received — several changes to what the state had originally proposed to comply with the act, which is billed as succeeding No Child Left Behind but with more flexibility for states.
“I would just say that it wasn’t a hard process but when we said we didn’t expect to have some push back from the Department of Education that we did have to give on a few things as we went through the process,” assistant state schools superintendent Michele Blatt said in a telephone interview.
“We were a little disappointed that they didn’t allow as much innovation and flexibility as they promoted ESSA to be.”
West Virginia education officials knew the federal agency had questions and that the discussions were likely to be fluid. But, just a couple of weeks ago, they thought their explanations of West Virginia’s thought process might be enough to win federal approval.
Instead, during emails and telephone calls back-and-forth, the federal officials remained insistent on some points. The state officials, particularly state Superintendent Steve Paine, decided to comply and move on with implementation.
“We did a couple of different phone calls with the U.S. Department of Education, which allowed them to also explain, and they followed up with an email that explained they didn’t think it met the intent of the law,” Blatt said.
“Doctor Paine’s thought was we would really like to get to the implementation stage and we didn’t feel like we lost anything that we couldn’t continue to do in a different way. It was just better to move forward.”
West Virginia was among the first few states to win full approval for its plan.
Questions by the federal agency about the state’s initial submission had to do with how much weight West Virginia gives to different areas of its academic accountability system, whether West Virginia is holding its counties accountable for English-language proficiency and the viability of locally-selected tests in lower grades.
One of the changes had to do with that last question.
“That was another sticking point that we could not convince them to get over,” said Melanie Purkey, executive director for federal programs for the state Department of Education.
“They did want that measure to come from one test. We did give up our section of that piece that allowed counties to select their own benchmark.”
Another aspect of the change is that first and second grades won’t be held accountable through the benchmark tests.
The federal agency also questioned West Virginia’s plans to measure progress using Lexile and Quantile scales, rather than the percent of students attaining grade-level proficiency.
State education officials had wanted to stick with those standards, saying teachers and parents are accustomed to them.
“The Lexiles and Quantiles embedded in our plan — we will continue to use those for teacher instruction and to communicate with our parents,” Blatt said. “We will still do the translations but they will be for communication, not reported out as part of the ESSA plan.”