More Va. Schools Hit Mark on Exams Used for Ratings

By Alan Richard — October 24, 2001 3 min read
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Nearly three years after Virginia’s school rating system got off to a spectacularly difficult start, the state has released figures showing that the number of schools meeting state standards has risen sharply.

The new data show that the percentage of Virginia’s public schools meeting state-accreditation standards soared from just 2 percent in 1999 to 40 percent this year, with many more schools seemingly headed for full accreditation soon.

State leaders held up the new results as proof that the accountability system built around the state’s Standards of Learning exams is working as it should.

“Virginia is showing the nation the way to raise achievement,” declared Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican who is finishing up his four- year term and is ineligible to succeed himself.

In addition to the 40 percent of schools now meeting or exceeding the state’s requirements for accreditation, another 30 percent of the state’s 1,839 public schools have reached the state’s year-by-year benchmarks for adequate progress, the state reported. That means the state considers the schools on track to meet the standards by 2007. Schools aren’t required to meet the accreditation standards until that year.

For a school to post the performance demanded on the SOLs, as the tests are commonly called, 70 percent of the school’s students must pass the tests, which are given in grades 3, 5, and 8, and as end-of-course exams in high school.

State Superintendent of Education Jo Lynne DeMary, who was appointed by the governor, said schools that previously had struggled now were making progress with the help of state-required improvement plans and technical assistance.

“In more and more schools, teachers and administrators are analyzing curricula and making the changes needed to improve instruction and increase student achievement,” she said in a statement.

Secretary of Education Wilbert Bryant, who oversees both K-12 and collegiate education, said Virginia’s work showed the success of the current Republican leadership.

His remarks came only three weeks before Virginia elects a new governor; the race pits Republican Mark L. Earley, who is allied with Gov. Gilmore and his education policies, against Democrat Mark R. Warner, who has suggested making some changes to the SOLs.

“These results are proof that Gov. Gilmore’s commitment to higher academic standards is paying big dividends for the next generation,” Mr. Bryant said in a statement.

Critics’ Tone Softens

One of the driving forces behind the SOLs has been Virginia’s state board of education. The panel, which is appointed by the governor, could see changes to its makeup regardless of who wins the governor’s race.

Kirk T. Schroder, who has helped chart the state’s education course as the president of the board for the past four years, said in an interview that standards-based improvement efforts must continue, but evolve to reflect the needs of students.

“Where would we be today if we had heeded the advice of those who said the governor and board were asking too much of our schools?” he said.

Many of those who were skeptical of Virginia’s policy direction have softened their tone as more schools have met the standards. But issues remain.

For one thing, assessment experts have long held that scores on newly introduced tests generally rise after a few years, once students and teachers become more familiar with the exams and the material that is tested. (“Testing’s Ups and Downs Predictable,” Jan. 26, 2000.) Some experts say a pattern of improving scores may not necessarily reflect true gains in students’ overall skills and knowledge.

“This is the normal progression,” said Jean Bankos, the president of the Virginia Education Association and the chairwoman of the Virginia Education Coalition, a group of education organizations. “There will be a leveling off.”

Ms. Bankos said that the rise in the number of schools meeting accreditation standards was encouraging, but added that she fears the state is emphasizing test results too heavily.

She wants more attention to state funding for schools, and urges broader ways of judging student work. Many high- poverty schools still lag behind, and large numbers of students could fail graduation exams when those take hold, she said.

“I am worried about that fraction of kids who are not getting it,” Ms. Bankos said.

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