CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Only 18.5 percent of West Virginia 15-year-olds are proficient in math -- the fourth-worst standing in America, about equal to Bulgaria's level -- according to the Program for International Student Assessment.
West Virginia ranks 49th among U.S. states in "science and engineering readiness," the American Institute of Physics says.
Just 18 percent of West Virginia eighth-graders are proficient in math, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports. A mere 3 percent rate "advanced" -- giving West Virginia the nation's worst standing in that category.
In ACT tests for college entry, young West Virginians score 13 points below the U.S. average in math and 6 points below in science.
No wonder Gov. Tomblin devoted Monday's inaugural address to a call for school reform. When the Legislature convenes Feb. 13, upgrading education is expected to be the top demand in his State of the State address.
Improving West Virginia's learning level won't be easy. Around the world, rural mountain zones generally lag behind more-prosperous urban complexes in flat territory where commercial development is easier. Studies find that science learning trails in most conservative "red states" with lower-income populations and reduced education levels.
One-fourth of West Virginia youths drop out of high school. Many wreck their futures by drug addiction. Solving this social sickness will be difficult.
Some reform efforts are astir. Charleston lawyer Charles McElwee is trying to mobilize a citizen movement for high-grade education. Kanawha schools superintendent Ron Duerring worked with crusading minister Matthew Watts to draft a pilot plan for five West Side schools, as follows:
Year-round classes would be conducted. Students would wear uniforms. Superior teachers would be hired without regard to seniority. Tardiness and truancy would be punished firmly. More parent and community involvement would be sought. This crackdown is proposed for Stonewall Jackson Middle School and four elementaries: Mary C. Snow, J.E. Robbins, Grandview and Watts.
We don't know whether such new approaches can boost student knowledge and scores. We don't know whether passage of more school laws by the incoming Legislature can change West Virginia's status. But it's clear that reforms must be attempted. As the governor declared Monday:
"Per-capita, our education funding ranks among the best in the nation. But on our most important metric -- student achievement -- we're falling behind. It doesn't need to be this way, and it must stop."
Naturally, teacher unions will say that the key to improvement is higher pay for teachers. Their requests should be considered politely. Then leaders at all levels must wage a broad-scale struggle to pull West Virginia education up from the cellar.