It was the kind of headline educators hate: “97 Percent of Schools in Virginia Fail New Exams: Local Officials Say Results Are Worse Than Expected.”
Though many educators described the first-year results from Virginia’s new Standards of Learning tests, released last month, as a starting point, and pledged to raise scores in the future, others lost no time in questioning both the tests and the passing scores that were set for them.
“Something is wrong here, and I would have to say that it is not our schools, not our hard-working principals and teachers, and certainly, not our students,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of the 154,000-student Fairfax County schools. The system is Virginia’s largest district and is considered one of its best.
The public outcry that followed the release of test scores in Virginia is becoming a familiar pattern--repeated in several states in the past year alone--as tough new standards for students and schools, and tough new tests to measure them, come on line. Almost by definition, such first-year results are going to be bleak, the inevitable fallout of a vast realignment of the system toward higher achievement.
But how states handle the situation has emerged as a vitally important issue, one that can make the difference between maintaining public support or confronting a public relations disaster.
“You can’t go from telling schools and kids they’re average or above to telling them they’re all failures and not expect the public to be, at the very least, confused,” said Andy Plattner, the chairman of A-Plus Communications, an education consulting company based in Arlington, Va.
Several states that survived the first-year turmoil and are now two or three years into the process have won the backing of parents and educators in the push for higher achievement. Most attribute that success to aggressive strategies to build public support.
“If you can weather the first year and then finally get another bar on the chart that shows this is really about progress, that’s extremely important,” said Ron Peiffer, the assistant state schools superintendent in Maryland, where 44 percent of students now meet the state standards. “But the first year is really hard.”
Rule No. 1, experts say, is to start early. Let the public know what to expect.
“The time to respond to this crisis isn’t the day the test scores come out,” said William Porter, the executive director of the Washington State Partnership for Learning, a Seattle-based business coalition. In that state, business leaders and the state superintendent met with editors at newspapers throughout the summer before the results were released.
Massachusetts officials held press briefings across the state to help reporters understand the new tests there and how the results would be reported. They also invited some 3,500 local educators--superintendents, principals, and teachers--to special workshops. Two months before the results were released, more than 1.4 million copies of a brochure explaining the new standards and assessments went to every school in the state.
Mass Insight, the nonprofit group that produced the brochures, also formed alliances of business, political, and education leaders to reinforce the message that expectations and achievement needed to be raised. The goal was to send a simple, coordinated message: First-year results were just a starting point from which the state could move forward.
Equally important, experts say, is to make the testing program as open and transparent as possible.
“Nothing should be mysterious,” said Alan Safran, the chief of staff for the Massachusetts Department of Education. “That erodes public confidence.”
In practice, that means sharing test questions with the public.
In 1997, customers at McDonald’s restaurants in Washington state could read about that state’s tests and answer three sample questions on the tray liners that came with every meal.
On Dec. 1, Delaware hosted “Take the Test” day. The state’s two major newspapers carried an insert with sample questions and answers. Retail stores and restaurants set up tables where people could try sample questions.
Massachusetts has taken the unusual step of releasing all of its test questions on the World Wide Web after the exams are given, along with examples of student work that met the standards. Of course, such efforts don’t come cheap. “We have additional costs because we have to develop new questions every year, but we feel that it’s money well spent,” said Jeff Nellhaus, the state director of standards in Massachusetts. “Parents and teachers both have a much better understanding of what the questions are.”
But not everyone agrees with that strategy, which, besides increasing costs, makes it harder to compare results from year to year.
“It undermines the statistical merits to release an entire test every year,” argued John R. Tanner, the director of assessment and analysis for the Delaware education department. “We release up to a third of the items off of each administration.”
Still others argue that states should phase in high standards by raising the bar over time, thus avoiding the sticker shock of seemingly awful first-year results. That’s the approach used by states such as Texas, which has managed to gain widespread support for its assessment-and-accountability program.
“If you don’t give the public a transition that they see as fair, they’ll essentially just revolt,” Mr. Plattner warned.
Yet Texas has also been criticized as setting the bar too low. Many states are setting passing scores for their new tests based on what they aspire to have students learn in the future rather than what most students now know. Getting the public used to goals that students and schools aren’t expected to meet for several years is tough, however.
A Distant Goal
The percentage of students who passed Virginia’s tests on the first go-around ranged from a low of 32.8 percent in 5th grade history to a high of 71.1 percent in 8th grade science. The average passing rate across all the tests was 41 percent.
But the passing rates for students have received far less attention than the results for individual schools. Schools will lose their state accreditation beginning in 2007 unless 70 percent of their students pass the tests in four key subject areas. High school students, beginning with the Class of 2004, will have to pass six end-of-course tests to graduate.
Only 39 of the state’s 1,800 schools, or 2.2 percent, met the performance goals the first time out. Another 128 would have met the requirements with better performance on just one test.
“Now everyone is focused on the 98 percent failure rate, but people don’t understand that that figure represents a goal that is set for the year 2007,” said Kirk T. Schroder, the president of the state board of education.
‘Work With Us’
Several Virginia superintendents--often the people taking the most heat for the performance of schools in their districts--agreed last week that it’s too early to throw in the towel.
“Our students are capable of learning the material that’s addressed in these standards,” said Superintendent Deanna W. Gordon of the 14,000-student Roanoke system, where only one of 39 schools met the standards. “We have tried to insist to parents that their initial response should not be to attack the tests but to agree to work with us to try to help students pass.”
But others contended that the state should rethink the process.
“The state insisted on testing first, training teachers second, and purchasing new books and teaching materials third, which is the exact opposite of what you need to do,” Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, said. “I don’t think it’s a reflection of what our kids know or don’t know, as much as the state getting the process backwards.”
Already state officials have made several changes in the testing program, including changing the dates when the tests can be given and agreeing not to report the first year’s results on students’ high school transcripts.
But whether those steps will be enough to retain public confidence in Virginia’s new standards and assessments remains to be seen.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Stanley Rabinowitz, a testing expert at WestEd, a federally funded research center in San Francisco. “You can’t have the highest standards in the country and think that they’re going to be painless.”
He questioned whether any system could survive a failure rate as high as that in Virginia.
“I’m afraid an awful lot of damage has been done already,” agreed Mark H. Emery, the vice chairman of the Fairfax County school board. “Virginia was sort of leading the pack in setting standards and developing assessments, and I think this has set the state backward.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as In 1st Year of Tests, States Must Brace For Foul Weather