Declining NAEP test score confirms need for education reform

By State Sen. Mitch Carmichael - Contributing columnist

In my experience, when people preface a statement with, “I’m not making excuses, but…,” you can safely bet they’re about to make excuses.

There’s been a litany of excuse-making from state education officials following the release of the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) results which show West Virginia test scores falling further behind.

The NAEP, which tests students in fourth and eighth grades, is known as “the nation’s report card.”

Our state’s report card isn’t the kind your mom is proud to stick on the refrigerator.

Only three states saw statistically significant drops in their average scores for fourth-grade math. Our decline of five points was the biggest.

West Virginia fourth-grade reading scores are now at their lowest level in history. Eighth grade reading scores have also been dropping.

These results are heartbreaking. Each person in this state who has a role in our public education system – and I include myself in that grouping – should be searching our souls, asking ourselves what we can do to improve education for our students. It is our moral responsibility to provide a world-class education to our children.

I’ve heard from parents who are angry and frustrated. I share their frustration.

It’s frustrating to recall that during the legislative session, liberal union bosses went so far as to question the need for comprehensive education reform. “Our graduation rates are good,” they said. “Stop focusing on the negative.”

It’s frustrating that every Democrat in the legislature voted against the Student Success Act, which has many provisions that are so important to public education – including improvements to student health and safety, ensuring parents more control over education, a historic pay raise for teachers, and millions of new dollars in aid to our schools for the purpose of providing additional nurses, counselors, and mental health professionals.

It’s frustrating that tiny steps toward education reform and a small degree of school choice prompted union bosses to call for multi-day strikes and loud demonstrations in the Capitol, but declining test scores are met with shrugs and buck-passing.

I firmly believe that West Virginia has incredibly talented teachers that can inspire and educate our children to lofty levels of achievement. I have met so many great teachers that love their jobs and work hard to perform at the highest standards. Yet, many feel trapped in a bureaucratic system that stifles creativity, fails to reward achievement, and protects bad employees. Therefore, it’s frustrating for me to hear our state education establishment offering excuses, paying lip service to accountability while resisting it at every turn.

A leading state education official even suggested “test scores are not the best measure of success.” That would be like Neil Brown, WVU football coach, claiming that the score of a game doesn’t matter. What an astonishing statement.

West Virginia spends more per-student on education than most other states, including on administrative positions. Our education bureaucracy is large and top-heavy. What have we been paying these officials to do, if not focus on instruction and student achievement?

A team at the state Department of Education took the time to craft a lengthy list of justifications for the low NAEP scores. It blames everything from poor student attendance to evolving standards.

What it doesn’t say – but should – is: “These results are unacceptable. We’re professionals and we must do better.”

Other states face similar problems and have implemented new systems. But, West Virginia is the only state whose fourth-grade math scores fell five points last year.

Yes, we have challenges. But our kids’ education is too important to use those challenges to excuse poor results. Parents deserve to know their children are receiving a world-class education. Teachers deserve our support and encouragement. Most importantly, our children deserve an enlightened education that illuminates a bright future for each precious student.

Running a topflight education system is hard, but it’s among the most crucial functions of state government. Education is the key to improving our state’s economic position and the lives of our citizens.

We simply must do it better.

I’m optimistic that the education reform bill my Republican colleagues and I passed is a bold step in a better direction.

The NAEP report card is the latest evidence that our efforts at comprehensive education reform are necessary and vital. Our legislation gives existing public schools vastly more funding and flexibility, but it also empowers people outside the system and opens the door to new approaches that have worked in other states.

For me, the NAEP scores confirm the desperate need for these new approaches. I hope that now even some of our critics will agree that we were right to push for bold changes.

We all want a state report card that we’re proud to show our citizens. I am firmly convinced that West Virginia teachers, students, and parents are as gifted and blessed as any in the world. We can and will be great. Let’s stop the excuse-making and get it done.

By State Sen. Mitch Carmichael

Contributing columnist

Senator Carmichael (R-Jackson) is president of the West Virginia Senate and Lieutenant Governor of West Virginia.

Senator Carmichael (R-Jackson) is president of the West Virginia Senate and Lieutenant Governor of West Virginia.