Virginia Sets New Standards for Schools

Published December 1, 1997

As the final step in the transformation of its public education system, which began in 1995 with the adoption of revised Standards of Learning, the Virginia State Board of Education on September 4 approved new Standards of Accreditation for its public schools. Together, the Virginia reforms put in place a set of expectations for students and for schools that take effect in the 2003-2004 school year, when high school students will be required to pass a majority of new state exams to get their diplomas, and schools will lose their accreditation if 70 percent of their students don’t pass those tests.

“You want the schools and the students both pulling in the right direction,” said Virginia State Board of Education vice-president Lil Tuttle, adding “These standards are a harness that applies pressure to the schools while the tests apply pressure to the students.”

Responding to Republican Governor George F. Allen’s demand for change, the appointed State Board of Education has adopted a major reform proposal every year for the past three years. In 1995, it established new Standards of Learning, based on a new content-based curriculum, for English, mathematics, science, and history. The standards outline what is supposed to be taught at each grade level in Virginia schools.

To measure student progress on the new learning standards, in 1996 the Board contracted with Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement to develop new standardized criterion-referenced tests for third, fifth, and eighth grades, and the end of high school. The tests, which measure how well the Standards of Leaning were actually met by the students, will first be administered in Spring 1998.

The final step, accreditation of schools, was necessary because the learning standards and standardized tests do not in themselves develop accountability in the schools, explained Tuttle. For example, she said, since 1989 Virginia has had a sixth-grade graduation requirement, the Passport to Literacy Test, based on the elementary curriculum. Although 68 percent of all sixth-graders meet this requirement, only 38 of the state’s 132 school divisions had a 70 percent pass rate or better.

“The schools never suffered any consequences if their students failed the test–the students were held accountable, but not the schools,” said Tuttle, adding, “The measure we’re most interested in is the results: Are the students learning? Are the schools teaching?”

Under the new standards, school accreditation is tied primarily to output, not input. Although schools will still be judged on such measures as the number of books in their libraries, accreditation will be based largely on their ability to deliver education in the core subjects of English, mathematics, science, and history. School performance will be measured as the percentage of students who pass the state standardized tests.

For a school to be fully accredited, 70 percent of its third grade students must pass English and mathematics tests, and 50 percent must pass science and history tests. For fifth grade students, eighth grade students, and those nearing high school graduation, at least 70 percent must pass in all four subject areas. Schools not meeting those requirements will receive a warning from the state and a request for an improvement plan. Schools that fail to meet the test-score requirements for three years will be denied accreditation.

“They are saying that if schools do not meet these standards, they’ll lose their accreditation–that holds the schools accountable,” observed the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Lee MacVaugh, adding that it could be “a model for other states.”

Graduation standards also are being raised. A graduation diploma for the Class of 2002 will require 22 credits instead of the current 21, including three years of laboratory science and mathematics with algebra or geometry. An advanced-studies diploma will require 24 credits, including four years of laboratory science, mathematics, and history.

The new standards do not please everyone. Virginia Education Association president Cheri W. James told The Virginian-Pilot that the fact-based curriculum standards undercut efforts to teach “thinking skills.”

Tuttle disagrees. “How can you think in a vacuum?” she asks, adding, “Every discussion has a body of knowledge that is essential for higher learning. The standards not only say what should be learned, but at the end of each grade level, the student have to show that they can use the facts that they have learned.”

To critics who said the standards were unfair to schools with large numbers of disadvantaged children, the Board had this to say: “To expect less of schools serving disadvantaged children is to relegate disadvantaged children to lower expectations, lower tracks, and a life of significantly limited opportunity.”

Tuttle also dismisses critics who say the standards undermine public education by setting up schools to fail. “Whether or not we bring to light the failing schools,” she says, “doesn’t change the reality that the schools will still be failing. It’s time we were honest with the people of Virginia and say that this is acceptable performance and this is not.”

Two recent studies have heaped praise on Virginia’s standards. In July, the American Federation of Teachers’ report, “Making Standards Matter 1997,” rated Virginia the only state as “exemplary” in all subject areas, calling the curriculum a model for other states. Virginia’s English Standards also were ranked third overall, after Massachusetts and Illinois, in a July report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “State English Standards” by Sandra Stotsky.

Information on a school’s accreditation status, test scores, and dropout rates will be provided to parents in an annual “School Performance Report Card.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].