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Weigh Virginia Tests on a Global Scale

To the Editor:

Let me try to provide a little perspective on the "massive failure rates" of Virginia's schools on the new Standards of Learning program ("Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Virginia," Jan. 20, 1999). "Massive" in this case means 97 percent of the schools failed. Consider these three facts:

1. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, 41 nations participated. Only six outscored Iowa in math, only one in science.

2. Students in Iowa score between the 62nd and 68th percentile on domestic achievement tests, depending on grade and test.

3. Students at Robinson and West Springfield high schools, two Fairfax County, Va., high schools that are neither the highest- nor the lowest-scoring in the district, score between the 75th and 80th percentile on domestic standardized tests.

Thus, Iowa outscores virtually all countries, and the students at Robinson and West Springfield score considerably better than students in Iowa.

Both high schools failed to meet the standards on the new tests.

Little wonder that Fairfax County Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said that the "results are so ridiculous that no one will pay attention to them."

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

School-to-Work Stories of Its Demise Are Premature

To the Editor:

Your Dec. 2, 1998, article on the school-to-work movement ("School-to-Work Movement Faces Test, Study Says,") painted a grim picture of the future of school-to-work, arguing that federal dollars distributed by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act were not used effectively in building a school-to-work system in this country.

We disagree strongly with this conclusion. In fact, the school-to-work legislation was visionary. And while too many states and regions got off on the wrong foot, it is rather premature to make conclusions on the success of such a significant education reform effort when there are plenty of places where school-to-work is working, with or without federal dollars. The initiative has created a new incentive for many students to stay in school and take harder classes. It has also dramatically helped high schools realize that the general track is a dead end and that rigorous, focused programs like career academies are a much better way to reach students. (Recent studies have shown that career academies are an effective model, helping schools restructure themselves into small learning communities with a more supportive and personalized learning environment, improving attendance and retention, and increasing access to postsecondary education.)

In recent years, business has taken ownership of school-to-work and, in many places, is actively involved in providing students with in-depth, work-based learning opportunities. The National Center on Education and the Economy is taking the critical concept of business involvement one step further by facilitating industry-association-sponsored school-to-work partnerships. A national or regional industry association takes responsibility for linking students with standards-driven, work-based learning opportunities while they are in school and guaranteeing them a job offer from a member company upon completion of the program's requirements. An expanded role for business and industry associations is key to sustaining school-to-work and all the long-term benefits it brings at the school level.

The most viable school-to-work partnerships are: 1) inextricably linked to, and overseen by, the same governing body as other workforce initiatives;
2) tied to high academic standards; 3) supported by business and industry partners that provide students with technical skills needed to succeed in a job; and 4) structured around strong, clear incentives for students, such as the guarantee of a year's worth of college credit and a job offer upon graduation.

Surely, in many places, school-to-work was not viewed as a broader effort connected to regional workforce-skills development, economic development, and education reform. And without being part of a larger workforce infrastructure managed by a single regional entity, many school-to-work partnerships lacked long-term sustainability and are in a state of panic now that the federal money is drawing to an end. Too often, school-to-work was not viewed as being connected to higher academic performance in the classroom. We sometimes failed to make the case for contextual learning that maintains a high academic standard. Too many schools got caught up in developing projects and activities without connecting those activities to rigorous academic standards.

In our competitor countries overseas, students regularly complete projects where the focus is clearly on ensuring that students gain a deep understanding of content knowledge, as well as particular skills. As one Danish student said in a recent interview done by the center, his teachers didn't evaluate his building of a weather station on the quality of the station itself, but they insisted that the physics and electronics demonstrated be near perfect.

School-to-work needs to be seen as part of the fundamental reform that will gradually transform our educational system to meet the economic and social realities of the 21st century. To do so, America must stick with it and not allow the premature end of direct, federal financial support set back a critical national transformation.

Tim Barnicle
Workforce Development Program
National Center on Education and the Economy
Washington, D.C.

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Page 37

Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Letters

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