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In 1933, the West Virginia Legislature abolished 398 school districts, establishing 55 county school boards. This action was necessitated by passage of a 1932 state constitutional amendment designed to alleviate homeowners’ property tax burdens amid the Great Depression.

One consequence of the constitutional amendment’s passage became the state’s penchant for education policy centralization, meaning state leaders found it easier to govern with fewer school districts.

Indeed, state-level policymaking permeates our entire public school system, including the classroom.

This county board member served as a teacher, quickly discovering some of my fifth-grade students performed at the expected academic grade level while other students performed below fifth-grade academic expectations.

State-mandated standardized testing determines student mastery of academic subjects — as measured “against” state Board of Education academic expectations — as well as students’ progress toward meeting academic subject mastery. When a student performs “below” state-expected academic mastery levels — based on state board standards — they are credited with academic “success” if demonstrating growth in mastering state-specified academic expectations.

The student, however, might remain several grade levels below academic expectations the state demands for the next or succeeding grade level in which they are placed.

Whether school officials ask or pressure teachers to promote students who are not on grade level to the next grade is a critical question. Educators allege that this occurs. If so, are students’ abilities to achieve authentic mastery of subject content compromised? Secondly, how many students have achieved “actual grade level attainment” upon graduation?

Stated differently: Why do students performing at a second-grade level, based on the state’s testing programs, find themselves in a fifth-grade classrooms?

Simple. Social promotion.

In former educators’ exit interviews, some teachers say administrative pressures for student social promotion — an approach counter to ensuring that students achieve educational mastery — was a factor for leaving teaching.

Many peer board members recount this theme, as well: a U.S. armed forces recruiter saying GED-holders often demonstrate academic mastery more so than public school students. Another peer board member observed that academic honor rolls are comprised nearly of the entire student body. And parents systematically complain when college freshmen, including National Honor Society members, enroll in remedial classes.

What factors influenced the conditions described above? “The Nation At Risk,” a study released by the Reagan administration, has been a major factor, spawning 37 years of public education retooling.

That’s partly understandable. The study concluded that U.S. public education system outputs were so deficient that national security could be compromised.

If report recommendations were implemented, the feds predicted greatly enhanced student achievement gains backed with “strings attached” dollars. An ever-growing chorus of federal and state politicians, policy wonks, bureaucrats, state education officials, business organizations and think tanks committed themselves to meet the challenge of the Reagan administration report.

Education officialdom’s mantra stressed rigorous curricula, including accelerating graduation rates.

Thus, students of varying academic standing — often affected by social promotion — were to conquer higher-level mathematics and similar curricula to prove a state’s commitment to improve public education. A few states wanted to grade teachers on students’ overall academic performance, as well as entire schools.

Does the push to attain and maintain a nearly 100% graduation rate diminish a student’s ability to achieve state-inspired academic mastery? Which is more important: Learning authenticity or a nearly 100% graduation rate practically constructed on the foundation of student social promotion?

When one inquires about student social promotion, some county superintendents and school-level administrators contend that retaining a student until they attain academic mastery proves a disincentive for student graduation — a finding generally supported by research.

Is the goal to maintain a high graduation rate of greater importance than academic standing? Yes, if the goal is to illustrate student academic prowess through the state’s own academic progress measures and filtered through a public relations machine.

When I was a legislator, I sponsored a measure to strip students of their driver’s licenses if they quit school. The goal was to encourage student stick-to-itiveness without devaluing the diploma.

To maintain authenticity, we must acknowledge our problem: We fail students through social promotion.

How do we fix the problem?

Sorry folks. Charter schools, education savings accounts and similar proposals strip resources from public schools, as do teacher work actions.

Public schools, the great equalizer in a democratic society, cannot be disencumbered from state Capitol cheerleading. Instead, let’s honor our constitution’s demand for a “thorough and efficient” school system — a school system that disengages from fixation on outputs designed to tout centralized education policymaking, rather than emphasizing educational excellence.

Remember, the term “public relations” is absent from the West Virginia Constitution. State-level public policymaking, blessed, undergirded and adulated by court precedent, often usurps local decision-making and accountability for public schooling, creating a mediocre school system awash in PR veneer, clinging to the vaunted emphases on results. There’s always another wave of education tinkering.

Are students, awash in an adult world of stultifying, state-down policy alchemy, our true constituents?

Patrick Murphy is a member

of the Berkeley County Board

of Education and president of the West Virginia School Board Association. The views

expressed here are his own.