As Scores Rise, Virginia Ponders Future of Accountability

By Alan Richard — January 15, 2003 6 min read

Virginia leaders believe their state has seen more improvement in public schools than any other during the past few years, but there’s no convincing parents like Mickey VanDerwerker that the state is using the right approach.

Three years into a school accountability system that resembles what the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 now requires every state to do, the challenges of sustaining such a system are setting in.

Leaders in the Old Dominion tout tremendous increases in the number of schools fully accredited by the state since 2000. As shown mostly by scores each year on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, the gains in accreditation levels are clear proof that the program has forced a greater academic focus at schools across the state, they say.

“The reason our scores are up so dramatically is that the schools are focused on instruction—and they’re focused on instruction for children that in the past they frankly were not paying a lot of attention to,” said Mark Christie, the president of the Virginia state board of education, who as a Republican gubernatorial adviser, helped create the state’s school accountability system.

Critics say that state officials simply have tweaked the system to get the results they wanted, and that Virginia’s test-heavy approach is something this state and the nation one day will regret.

“So much of kids’ education has become practice for the test,” said Ms. VanDerwerker, the mother of five and a school board member here in Bedford, who is fighting an uphill battle to overturn the state accountability program. “You’ve got to put tests back into their proper place.”

Making Progress

Since the state began to link test scores with school accreditation in 1999, the percentage of Virginia schools that meet the accreditation standards has soared, from 2 percent to 64 percent.

The latest accreditation data, released in November, show that 1,175 of the state’s 1,830 public schools met or exceeded the standards for accreditation. More than 400 schools became accredited last fall for the first time.

Nearly one-fifth of Virginia public schools, or about 312, still do not meet the standards. Five percent, or 85 schools, are far enough behind to qualify for visits from state officials to help determine improvement plans. The four lowest-scoring schools are receiving full-time technical help.

James McMillan, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, has overcome much of his early skepticism over the state initiative “The test scores have risen dramatically, and have continued to rise more than I thought they would,” he said. “I’ve seen evidence that particularly in low-performing schools, there have been some real turnarounds.”

Bedford is a county seat of 6,000 residents that has become more of a bedroom community to larger Roanoke and Lynchburg, both about a half- hour away. From here, Ms. VanDerwerker sends out regular mailings and e-mails protesting her state’s heavy emphasis on testing.

Ms. VanDerwerker said some parents are fed up with what they see as schools’ distraction from some of their other goals because of the emphasis on testing. And while none of her children’s schools has met state accreditation levels, she said she regrets that teachers have discarded creative lessons in favor of what she sees as drill-and-skill worksheets.

“They’re missing some of the most important things about school. One of them is to love it,” said Ms. VanDerwerker, an elected member of her town’s school board and an appointed board member for the 10,500-student Bedford County school district.

Her group, Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, claims a mailing list of 5,000. It wants the state to back off a requirement that Virginia students pass end-of-course exams for graduation starting this spring. She also wants the state to expand how it accredits schools.

While legislators aren’t lining up behind her, Ms. VanDerwerker is so committed that she makes the two-hour drive to Richmond for monthly state school board meetings to lobby for her cause.

“If you’re going to look at school quality,” she said, “I also want to know ... do they do well in college? What’s the experience level of teachers? What about discipline?”

The parents’ questions are worth pondering, said Mr. McMillan. The state might consider adding class size, local resources, and other factors to define accreditation, he said. His own daughter, he added, had experienced classes in which innovative assignments were halted so the “time to do SOL work” could begin.

Mr. Christie, the state board president who also teaches at Virginia Commonwealth, responded that the SOL tests and accreditation levels aren’t designed to limit instruction, nor are they supposed to distract from factors that make for good schools.

“We’ve always said it’s a floor and not a ceiling,” said Mr. Christie, who was an adviser to Gov. George Allen and now is the staff counsel to state’s House speaker.

Mark Edwards, the superintendent of the 43,500-student Henrico County schools outside Richmond, said the accountability program had fostered a synergy that helps academic achievement.

“No test is perfect, but I do think the accountability system is working well,” he said.

Roanoke schools Superintendent Wayne Harris said he would prefer that his state not label schools based on test scores alone, but he hasn’t fought the trend, either. State officials have been responsive to the concerns of superintendents, such as by tweaking a history test to include fewer short-answer questions and allowing students flexibility in how they qualify for graduation, he said.

Mainly, Mr. Harris said, the 13,300- student Roanoke district has decided to make the most of the situation. “If I fight the battle and dig my heels in, and I spend all my energy and my staff spends energy” worrying about state policies, students suffer, he said.

Setting Priorities

Assuming no upheavals in the current accountability system, some state leaders hope to turn Virginia’s success in raising test scores and accreditation levels into more funds for public schools.

Mr. Christie believes that is possible because taxpayers and politicians needed evidence that schools were improving before they would invest in education. Now they have the evidence, he said.

The problem facing Virginia and most other states, though, is that extra money is nowhere to be found. The state projects a $2.1 billion shortfall in the current two-year budget.

The budget problems haven’t kept the state board from examining ways Virginia might match its school funding system with its accountability requirements. The board held a series of forums across the state last year, asking educators and taxpayers for advice on how they should rework Virginia’s Standards of Quality, the laws that govern school funding and requirements for class size and other basic rules.

Mr. Christie and others on the state board— both moderate and conservative—have developed a degree of consensus on what needs to happen: more money focused on schools and subjects in which students need extra help.

The board plans to compile all the public comments and make a recommendation to the legislature by March, for consideration in the 2004 session in Richmond.

“We’d obviously hope that the economy has turned up, and that the money will be there,” Mr. Christie said. “You have to show accountability and results first, and that’s what we’re showing.”

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