CHARLESTON — With new national data spotlighting how West Virginia students fair in reading and math, the state Department of Education is gearing up to consider new ways to improve student achievement in the latter.
A federal education agency released scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, last week, an exam which is commonly referred to as The Nation’s Report Card. It showed little improvement for state students in reading or math from prior years, but showed the state’s students still fall well below the national average.
“Math achievement has been an issue here for a long, long time,” said state Superintendent Steve Paine during a recent meeting of the state Board of Education. He also said he has asked lawmakers to consider studying math achievement in upcoming interim meetings of the Legislature.
The NAEP is a federally mandated exam that is given to a group of students who can statistically represent an entire state. It is administered to fourth- and eighth-grade students every other year.
In the most recent exam, given in 2017, about 35 percent of fourth grade students from West Virginia were proficient in math. That’s up slightly from the 2015 exam, but still below the national average, which is about 40 percent.
With eighth-grade students, however, only about 24 percent tested proficient in math. That’s up about 3 percentage points from 2015, but still below the national average of 30 percent.
Paine explained part of the low scores by saying the NAEP is far more difficult than the state’s standardized testing, and that the exam’s definition of proficient is more rigorous than the state uses.
He also said that, because of the sample size of students the exam uses, West Virginia’s scores are statistically no different from many other states.
Along with the recent NAEP result, data from the Higher Education Policy Commission shows that many college-going students who graduate from a public school in West Virginia are not prepared to take entry-level math classes at college.
Almost 27 percent of state students who graduated in the spring of 2016 and went on to study at a college or university in the state needed to enroll in a remedial math class, the data shows. That’s more than 10 points ahead of the percentage of students who needed to enroll in a remedial English course.
Paine chided members of the media and politicians for what he said was an improper use of the NAEP results. He said the scores should not be used to rank states.
Later, he pointed out that West Virginia falls in the middle among states for some rankings, so people should stop saying the state’s education system is 50th in the nation.
“This is a national auditing test so you can benchmark your performance against some kind of national standard,” Paine told a board member.
One way to combat that might be to change or strengthen the requirements needed to become a teacher. In the future, Paine said, his department might bring ideas to change the requirements before the board to review.
“Right now, for example, for every elementary school teacher in the state, only three hours of math are required to become a teacher,” Paine said. “We have a serious problem with high school supply of mathematics teachers.”
But not all high school math classes are taught by a teacher certified to teach the subject, Paine said. He said his department has data to show that students in a math class being taught by a non-certified teacher fare worse in the subject than students taught by a certified teacher.
Among other things, Paine suggested board members might consider decreasing the number of math classes needed to become a high school math teacher.
“Why are we requiring high school teachers of mathematics to be taking calculus classes and (trigonometry) classes?” Paine asked. “I think that’s part of the problem — it scares some of these people away from obtaining a degree in secondary education mathematics. I think that’s part of the reason we have such a shortage.”
Board President Thomas Campbell said the state would not need to change any educational standards if it changes the requirement to become a teacher.
“We have a set number of students that are never going to be proficient in algebra,” said James Wilson, a board member.
Lou Maynus, an assistant state superintendent, pushed back against Wilson’s comment. She said that, with the right support, students can learn to do algebra as long as they’re able to learn to read.