First test for new state schools chief

West Virginia’s new state superintendent of schools, Michael Martirano, has set lofty goals to improve students’ academic performance. He will have to add one to the list.

Martirano, who will not take office until this fall, has said he wants to improve high school graduation rates and achievement by low-income and minority students. But after he was hired by the state Board of?Education, federal officials threw a kink into his plans.

Federal requirements for students with disabilities are changing, the U.S. Department of Education announced. And while 41 states met the old criteria, only 18 will comply with new standards.

It is no surprise that West Virginia and Ohio are not on the list of states already meeting the new requirements. They are in a federal category of states that “need assistance” in complying. Residents of our states can take some comfort in knowing we are better off than the six states and other education entities on the “needs intervention” list (it includes California and Texas).

Some of Martirano’s priorities will affect compliance with the rules on students with disabilities. Increasing graduation rates will help some youngsters in that category.

Martirano and others in the education community will have to learn precisely what it is the federal government wants before they can devise strategies to comply, of course. But clearly, improving performance by students with disabilities is a major task anywhere.

An idea of the challenge can be gained by looking at results of standardized testing in West Virginia. Average scores are broken down into many categories, including those of children with disabilities.

Standardized testing illustrates the wide gap between students with disabilities and most others in their schools. State data shows percentages of students who score “proficient” in various subjects at different grade levels.

In the most recent round of 11th grade mathematics tests, schools were doing very well if one-fourth of their students with disabilities achieved proficient scores. The highest average in the state, by the way, was 28.6 percent at Tyler Consolidated High School. Other Northern Panhandle high schools had percentages ranging from 0-15.8.

Martirano’s stated goals include very important ones. Increasing achievement by students from low-income families is critical, for example. But raising the bar for students with disabilities also is important to ensure West Virginia public schools are doing all they can to build bright futures for all children.