W.Va. Superintendent Michael Martirano: Test Scores Don’t Tell Whole Story

Martirano: Test Scores Don’t Tell Whole Story

WHEELING — West Virginia schools are turning out a higher percentage of high school graduates than the national average, despite the state’s high poverty rate.

State Superintendent of Schools Michael Martirano said the graduation rate, second in the nation, is just one of the metrics that show the state’s strengths and success in K-12 education.

“Our kids are graduating college- and career-ready,” he said during a recent visit to Wheeling.

This year, 89.81 percent of high school seniors will graduate with the Class of 2016, an amount second only to Iowa’s 90 percent, Martirano said. He believes that’s especially impressive, given that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia’s poverty rate in 2015 was 18.3 percent, higher than the national rate of 15.5 percent.

Graduation rates are impressive for specific groups, as well, Martirano said. For example, in 2015, the graduation rate among African-American students ranked fourth in the country; among students living in poverty, sixth; and among special education students, 19th.

Still, Martirano’s plan, written in 2015, is to achieve a graduation rate of 90 percent by the year 2020, he said. Since writing that plan, however, he has announced that he will leave the state for personal reasons.

Among his strategies for achieving 90 percent graduation is the new West Virginia School Report Cards statewide accountability system that will rate each school on an A-F grading scale.

The grade reveals how students are “learning, growing and achieving,” in each school, Martirano said, and improvements will help retain at-risk students.

“This is not a ‘gotcha’ (situation for schools),” he said. “If you are a D or F, the community should know.”

That’s because education is a business, according to Martirano.

“We need more kids graduating, but with a solid educational experience throughout,” he said, noting dropouts cause costly welfare payments and other social services.

Report card scores are based on the previous school year, and the first will be made public this month. Schools already know their scores, Martirano said, but they’re not allowed to release them until school officials verify and validate the details used to determine their school’s grade, Martirano said.

“Most principals go into a deep funk when you mention this,” state board of education member James Wilson said of the report card system.

But often, those are the conscientious leaders whose schools are performing well, he added.

Martirano, who considers himself a teacher at heart, said that during his two years as state superintendent, he’s promoted the state’s own proficiency standards and scoring for groups of students. It is called the West Virginia General Summative Assessment, and it’s just one tool in his scientific approach to measuring student success. It scores on four levels of proficiency: the lowest at 1, and the highest at 4.

In 2015 the assessment revealed half of students scored the highest level in math, and one-third earned the highest level in English/ language arts. However, even the lowest level reflects some proficiency, Martirano stressed.

Martirano sees a pervasive “woe (is) me” attitude throughout the state leading to negativity about the school system. For example, some politicians and education leaders hold on to an old test result from a past year and present it to the public, implying that it is the only measure of success for the state’s educational system.

Specifically, old scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP or “the nation’s report card,” are often used in this way. Through the assessment, the U.S. Department of Education periodically tests a sampling of students on one or more of a variety of subjects at a time, such as reading or mathematics.

In 2016, NAEP assessed eighth-grade students’ scores in arts, according to the schedule posted on the National Center for Education Statistics’ website.

While West Virginia students showed a decrease in reading proficiency in a past assessment, the most recent one shows an increase, Martirano said. “These are the data points that we need to start talking more about, as opposed to the pedantic representation of our NAEP scores,” he said.

Overall, the state has “a social justice responsibility to those (students) who don’t have the means to achieve,” Martirano said, referring to an achievement gap he said begins at birth, based on a family’s means.

That responsibility includes providing enough teachers — easing the “crisis” the state and nation faces in teacher shortages, including 600 teacher vacancies throughout the state.

Getting quality personnel in West Virginia has been a difficult task when salaries are lower than surrounding states’, according to Martirano. The starting salary the state offers teachers is in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, he said.

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