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iTeam Investigation: The future of West Virginia's public education system

A battle is waging in West Virginia over the future of public education. (WCHS/WVAH)

A battle is waging in West Virginia over the future of public education.

Many solutions are being floated, but there is very little agreement over the direction the state should take.

Whatever the state is doing in public education throughout West Virginia, it doesn't appear to be working. Contrary to the popular belief that West Virginia is ranked 50th in everything, however, the state's school system is not dead last. Unfortunately, it is much closer to the bottom than the top.

“Any objective analysis of the data of student performance reveals the fact that West Virginia's students are performing at rates that are near the bottom of the nation. And Kennie, I am absolutely positive that our children and our teachers are as smart, as gifted and as blessed as any in this nation. And there's no reason this education system in West Virginia should be performing at this level. We just need to fix the system and empower our teachers, our parents and our students to perform,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said.

To figure out how to improve, let's first take a look at where we stand. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is one of the most important ways to measure student achievement in various subjects.

Let’s start with math.

In 2017, West Virginia fourth-graders ranked 37th in the nation. By the time they reached eighth grade, they had fallen to 46th.

Reading results are similar. Once again, fourth-graders are at number 37 while eighth-graders plummet to 45th.

It seems like the longer students stay in the system the worse they perform.

“We're losing in one, you're starting into really higher math skills. You're starting into algebra one, geometry, algebra two, those are really, and trigonometry, calculus, you're getting into some very high-level classes," Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring said. "Secondly, it's the lack of math teachers, too. I mean, even within Kanawha County we don't have certified math teachers in every classroom because people just aren't going, it's not an attractive profession to go into anymore."

West Virginia's Balanced Scorecard, which keeps track of how schools are doing, shows that fourth and eighth grade students are only partially meeting standards in math and English language arts. That means they are scoring between 50 and 65 percent.

The news is even worse for seniors. The scorecard shows the average student partially meets reading standards, but fails in math.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association and a special education math teacher, said "our students have gone through three or four or five different math programs, curriculums over the course of their instruction. We haven't allowed one thing to work before we change it and try something different. If you want to make math scores go up and I've contended this over the last few years, convene a group of math teachers from elementary all the way through high school and figure out exactly where we need to go with the curriculum and then stick with that curriculum.”

One area where West Virginia can be proud of is its graduation rate. In 2018, WalletHub ranked every state across more than two dozen different metrics. West Virginia's school system ranked 42nd in the country, but was listed third in the nation for lowest dropout rate.

Even that success, however, comes with price. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, in 2014 West Virginia ranked 40th among the states in the college-going rate of high school graduates. Only 54.7 percent of graduating 12th-graders went on to further their education.

But of that number seeking an advanced degree, statistics released by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission show that nearly a third, 31 percent, required remedial classes in their freshman year.

From that 2016 study, Monongalia County fared the best, with 4 percent of its students taking remedial classes in college. Logan County was the worst, with six out of every 10 students, 61 percent, taking remedial classes.

Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, said he believes the state's school system is "breeding mediocrity."

"I hate to say that but one of the most telling things that I've ever experienced being on the board of education a couple years ago I'm conducting graduation at Logan High School. And I want to think that there's 160, 170 kids graduating. And they recognized all those students with three point or greater average. I'm going to say there was well over a hundred kids that stood up in that three point or higher category. And we all clapped and gave them the credit they should deserve and demand. They sat down and they said now we're going to recognize the Promise Scholars, those kids that could make a 23 on the ACT test. Ten kids stood up. It was like someone hit me right between the eyes with a hammer. I felt right then like we as a district had collectively failed those students," Hardesty said.

West Virginia’s school system faces many challenges, and there are just as many different opinions about how it can succeed.

Each Wednesday over the next several weeks the Eyewitness News iTeam will be examining different aspects of the system. We will take a look at charter schools, the 55-county system, the impact of the opioid epidemic, how poverty can be a barrier to learning, the disintegration of the family unit and what that means for schools and teachers.

We will be talking with people who have different ideas and different agendas, looking for some solutions to our continuing problems of low test scores, the need for remedial instruction for many of our college going students and how to get the resources teachers say they need into the classroom.

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