Tough Task: New school chief faces difficult road

An editorial from The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — West Virginia’s new state superintendent of schools, Michael Martirano, has his work cut out for him. Sugar-coating the fact some schools in our state are disaster areas – as many Mountain State residents have done for years – will guarantee they remain so.

Martirano, who came from a job as superintendent of St. Mary’s County schools in Maryland, took over his new duties last week. He was hired in part because of his record in improving school quality.

During the past decade or so, some schools in our state have gotten better in a few respects. For example, the state’s average high school graduation rate was 75.54 percent just a few years ago. Last year it had climbed to 81.39 percent. The dropout rate for students in grades 7-12 was 1.5 percent during the 2012-13 academic year – much better than the 2.6 percent for 2005-06.

But other measures of school quality indicate stagnation at best.

By the state’s own yardstick, not a single county had more than 60 percent of students score “proficient” in reading and language arts testing during 2012-13. Similarly dismal scores were recorded in mathematics, science and social studies.

In a significant measure, how West Virginia students score in National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, our state is losing ground slightly. For example, fourth grade reading scores here averaged only a few points less than national averages a decade ago. Last year the point spread was wider, at six (the average score in West Virginia was 215, compared to 221 nationally).

Bear in mind, as Martirano no doubt is aware, these are not off-the-cuff complaints about schools. These are measurements by educators.

Martirano has no magic wand to wave. It will take some time for him to learn what is holding youngsters back, and that will differ from county to county.

But, as has been noted by education analysts, control over public schools is very centralized in West Virginia. That puts more responsibility on Martirano and the state Board of Education.

Mountain State residents will be expecting results from them – and they are right to do so.

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