By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Virginia is exempted from No Child Left Behind, but the state’s alternative leads to a “separate and unequal,” class of students, says a national academic expert who is critical of the Old Dominion’s new accountability regimen.
The state has not officially released results from the new math exam, which was administered last spring. But as Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau reported earlier this month, several school divisions are reporting sharply lower passage rates.
The exam is rigorous, and State Superintendent of Instruction Patricia Wright has repeatedly warned scores would be lower.
Indeed, preliminary reports of passage rates in the 60 percent range — down from 90-plus percent the year before — give a snarky alternate meaning to the state’s SOL (Standards of Learning) test.
“They’re holding kids to low expectations. Under this scheme, AMO has a lower level of proficiency than NCLB,” argues Biddle.
- Just 57 percent of African-American students are expected to pass the state math exam in 2016. (Up from a dismal 45 percent this year.)
- A mere 65 percent of Hispanic students are projected to pass the test. (Up from 52 percent.)
By contrast, 78 percent of white children and 89 percent of Asian-American students are ticketed to pass the same exam by 2016. This year, white and Asian-American passage rates were 68 percent and 82 percent, respectively, according to a state Department of Education report.
See a breakdown of DOE objectives by subgroup here.
Even with more rigorous exams, Virginia’s disparate racial expectations appear easier to meet than the federal NCLB standard, which calls for 100 percent of students to pass state exams by 2014.
Scholars and school officials have called the NCLB goal “unrealistic” or, more charitably, “aspirational” — and that prompted the U.S. Department of Education to begin granting waivers from its provisions, freeing more states to flex their own accountability programs.
“NCLB’s goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014 was silly ,and everyone knew it. Hence, all of the Obama administration’s waivers,” said Amber Winkler, chief researcher at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
“The challenge now will be to ensure that we have rigorous yet realistic goals for all students.”
Wright said at a state Board of Education meeting last week she “wished our AMOs were higher, but we have a ways to go.” She predicted that future math scores will improve “exponentially.”
Virginia officials say the math standards “are based on student achievement on the rigorous new SOL tests, which were introduced last year and designed for the specific purpose of cutting in half the gap between Virginia’s lowest- and highest-performing schools.”
A new — and reportedly equally rigorous — reading exam debuts this fall.
The state Department of Education expects its new benchmarks will reduce gaps in reading and mathematics between schools performing at the 20th and 90th percentiles — overall and for each subgroup — over six years.
But Biddle, who is African-American, isn’t impressed with the effort.
By setting significantly lower passage-rate targets, he said, “Virginia is defining proficiency down. It is separate and unequal.”
Even at the end of the six-year improvement period, in which African-American and Hispanic students are anticipated to make double-digit gains in passage rates, both groups will score lower than whites and Asian-Americans today.
“So the (racial) gap really isn’t closing,” Biddle notes. “By holding kids to low expectations, it’s really a system for the schools” to meet AMO.
State Board of Education President David Foster counters that Virginia’s program would yield positive results.
“The commonwealth and school divisions are now able to focus federal resources on the schools most in need of reform while maintaining accountability for raising achievement in all schools through Virginia’s accreditation standards,” Foster said in a statement.
Five percent, or 36, of Virginia’s Title I (low-income) schools will be identified as “priority schools” based on overall reading and mathematics achievement, as well as graduation rates for high schools.
Priority schools must engage a state-approved turnaround partner to help implement a school-improvement model meeting state and federal requirements.
Ten percent (72) of the state’s Title I schools will be designated as “focus schools” based on reading and mathematics achievement of students in the three proficiency gap groups.
Focus schools must employ a state-approved coach to help the division develop, implement and monitor intervention strategies to improve the performance of students at risk of not meeting achievement standards or dropping out of school.
Christy Hovanetz, senior policy fellow for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, defended the Virginia approach as a reasonable alternative to NCLB’s one-score-fits-all approach.
“The feds believe in the same target for both students with disabilities and Asians. Therefore, there would be no incentive for students with disabilities to try, and for Asians, it would be way too easy,” Hovanetz said.
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia DOE, said, “It makes sense to have annual goals that reflect (each subgroup’s) level of performance at the beginning of the process.
“Previous benchmarks didn’t recognize that students were starting at different places. Under the waiver, we are shifting the focus to goals that are more in line with the original thrust of federal education law — focusing on schools that educate significant numbers of disadvantaged children.”
The ultimate goal, Pyle said, is to “move lower-performing schools to higher-performing levels — to shift the bell curve to the right.”
Beyond that, Pyle said, Virginia’s SOLs are buttressed by “a state accreditation program that sets higher expectations.”
Biddle agrees that a tighter, tougher focus is needed on the lowest achievers: “Virginia students have done well in aggregate, but not in subgroups.”
Looking at the school-accountability nationally, he says the picture is getting increasingly fuzzy.
While noting that NCLB has its flaws, and acknowledging that education is a state responsibility, Biddle believes Congress should grant NCLB waivers, instead of through administrative fiat.
“It’s becoming a process where anything goes. The feds have been terrible at holding states accountable,” he says, asserting that Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana have done “a better job than Virginia of advancing school reform.”
“The Obama administration admitted that it is essentially winging it when it comes to granting waivers to states that have not yet implemented or enacted all the proposals within their applications,” Biddle said.
Fordham’s Winkler concluded that Virginia’s challenge “will be to ensure that there are rigorous yet realistic goals for all students.
“I’m also concerned that a laser-like focus on closing the achievement gap may mean less focus on the average and high achievers. One way to close the achievement gap is for the higher-performing kids to do worse, and we don’t want that,” she said.
Virginia school officials applauded the switch from the “Annual Yearly Progress” (AYP) standard of No Child Left Behind.
Todd Tarkenton, director for the Office of Instructional Services and Academy Programs at Virginia Beach Schools, called the new state benchmarks “more realistic in terms of the goals and enables our schools to identify where those gaps exist, and to close the gaps between high and low achievers.
“This gives us another way for us to measure where we are.”
Terri Breeden, at Fairfax County Schools, the state’s largest K-12 system, said, “The new subgroup categories are fine, but the approach is hopefully the first sign of a cultural change.
“Moving away from the punitive labels and sanctions of NCLB, and moving toward more flexibility in supporting students and their learning is a step in the right direction,” said Breeden, assistant superintendent in the Department of Professional Learning and Accountability.