A warning to Virginia’s next governor

Terry McAuliffe (AP Photo/Elise Amendola); Ken Cuccinelli (Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Terry McAuliffe, left (Elise Amendola/AP); Ken Cuccinelli, right (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The next governor of Virginia needs to pay careful attention to this.

More than 35 school boards across Virginia have passed resolutions calling on education officials to revamp the Standards of Learning testing system in what amounts to growing pushback to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s school-reform agenda.

Many more of the 134 school districts in the state are considering taking up the measure as parents, teachers, principals and superintendents express growing frustration with a standardized testing regimen that forces students to take dozens of exams each year and then uses the scores to evaluate kids, teachers and schools. What’s more, local chambers of commerce are starting to take up similar resolutions; one has passed in Winchester and other panels are expected to do the same thing.

“We think the resolution is simply a tangible means for many to express what they have been feeling and saying for some time: we need reform to the system now,”  Steven Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said in an e-mail. “As the numbers continue to grow that message is reinforced to policy makers each day.”

The resolutions that have been passed say that there is “little research” showing that students “will be better prepared to succeed in their careers and college” by taking the 34 standardized tests the state gives to each child between grades three and 11. (Children actually take more than 34; teachers give interim tests to students, too.)

They ask the Virginia General Assembly to “create a new accountability system” that “encompasses balanced assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, allows for expedited test retakes, and more accurately reflects what students know.”

The questioning of SOL testing has led to growing concerns about McDonnell’s new program to assign A-through-F letter grades  to schools based primarily on student test scores. The state Board of Education was going to adopt final criteria for the system earlier this month but postponed it; this gives legislators time to examine why it’s such a bad idea and to get rid of it before it causes damage and wastes resources.

McDonnell got the idea from Florida, which was a model for about 15 other states that adopted school-grading systems. But Virginians may not be aware of the problems that have befallen other such schemes.

A new study about Oklahoma’s A-through-F school-grading system, for example, found that tiny differences in student standardized test scores can mean the difference between being an A or an F school. The system in Michigan, which assigns colors to schools rather than letters, just started a few months ago but already is being challenged. Why? Because, as it turns out, parents don’t understand what the colors mean, and, as in Oklahoma (and other states), the formula for making judgments about those schools is flawed. Some Michigan schools known to be high-performing were labeled “red” – indicating poor performance – while new schools that had no data were slathered in green — the best color rating.

These are the sorts of problems that should be expected when school reformers insist on using one flawed metric — a student standardized-test score — for purposes for which they were not designed.

The next governor — be it Terry McAuliffe 0r Ken Cuccinelli — should know that Virginians have caught on.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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