Va. schools could face more rigorous standards on math tests

September 20, 2012

Virginia schools could face significantly more rigorous standards on math tests over the next six school years as part of a proposed effort to narrow achievement gaps among students of all backgrounds.

By the 2017-18 school year, all groups of Virginia students — regardless of race, socioeconomic status or disability — would be expected to meet a 73 percent passing rate under a plan that will be presented to the state Board of Education next week.

With the revised objectives, the state would require that every school cut in half the division between the worst- and best-performing students on standards-of-learning exams. Schools also would have to ensure that all students meet or exceed a minimum pass rate every year.

Because some groups of students already lag behind other groups, the proposal would require large leaps in achievement to meet the higher standards, particularly among minorities, English language learners and those who have disabilities.

The Obama administration has granted No Child Left Behind waivers to Virginia, Maryland and the District that allow them to set varying achievement goals for different student groups. While Virginia’s new plan might lead to increases in math proficiency statewide, some critics of the proposal have called the goals unrealistic.

Initially, white and Asian students would be expected to meet higher pass rates than their hispanic, black and special education peers. That means the passing rate for black students will have to improve by 28 percentage points to meet the 73 percent standard by 2017. The passing rate for white students will only have to climb by 5 percentage points to meet that common goal.

Virginia Board of Education President David Foster acknowledged that the new plan is “ambitious but achievable.”

Patricia Wright, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the revised standards would create a particularly “high bar” for students who are currently underperforming.

In August, the state released the math scores from a new and tougher test that was administered in the 2011-12 school year. Nearly all groups of students saw double-digit drops in pass rates. The most dramatic drops occurred among minorities.

Wright said the new objectives are aggressive but attainable.

“It is important to remember that closing achievement gaps is not the same as eliminating achievement gaps,” Wright said. “We do aim . . . at least to cut it in half.”

Foster called the state’s approach “much more constructive” than the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires students across the country to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

“Any state could have met the goals of No Child Left Behind just by dumbing down the tests,” Foster said. “If you want to reach your goal of everybody, everywhere, passing every test, you can do it, but you do it for a price, of course.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the state Board of Education to adopt the new standards. The board will receive a briefing on the plan Thursday and vote on the matter in October.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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