October 5, 2012

According to a recent column by Michael Gerson [“Lowering expectations of learning,” op-ed, Sept. 28], the Virginia Board of Education has established lower expectations for black students than for white students. Referring to math benchmarks agreed to by the state board and the U.S. Department of Education, Gerson suggested that Virginia has turned away from the effort to “dramatically improve educational performance for every ethnic group” and adopted a system that is “difficult to distinguish from racism.”

Why on earth would the Virginia Board of Education and the Obama administration agree to such a thing?

They didn’t. In fact, we agreed to require the public schools of the commonwealth to raise the achievement of black children, as well as of other historically disadvantaged groups. Here are the facts:

Last February, the nine-member Board of Education voted unanimously to seek a waiver of the worst provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act, while well-intentioned, was widely criticized for branding good schools as “failing” and dictating how local school boards spent their dollars. The law had also failed to eliminate the wide achievement gaps that harm minority and other students.

This June, the Obama administration granted Virginia its waiver. In exchange, Washington required us to agree on a set of “Annual Measurable Objectives” — that is, yearly benchmarks — for improving passing rates on the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in math and reading.

Working off a model suggested by the Obama administration, Virginia agreed to a formula that requires low-performing schools to cut the achievement gaps in half within six years for student bodies as a whole and for each demographic group of students. For example, if a school’s Hispanic students are passing the math SOLs at a 52 percent rate and its Asian students at an 82 percent rate, the Hispanic students’ rate must improve to 56 percent next year — and continue improving in succeeding years until the achievement gap is addressed. Similar progress must be made in closing gaps affecting black, special education, and other groups.

Are schools allowed to accomplish this by lowering expectations for any group of students? Not at all. Schools that already exceed the benchmarks must maintain and improve on their prior performance. No backsliding is allowed.

Do different expectations apply to different students? No. Every public school student in Virginia takes the same SOL tests and must achieve the same minimum score to pass the tests. Further, every public school in Virginia has to achieve the same passing rates to be fully accredited — regardless of the demographic makeup of the school. The benchmarks that Gerson attacked are not expectations of individual students but ways of holding schools accountable for improving the passing rate of underperforming groups of students.

No state can set those benchmarks in a vacuum. A responsible accountability plan deals with reality and rewards progress. When Virginia introduced challenging new math SOL tests last year, black students passed at an average statewide rate of 52 percent. Asian students passed at an average rate of 87. As Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute wrote recently, “Why is it so ‘stunning’ that Virginia wouldn’t expect the achievement gap to evaporate in just five years?”

Of course, a state could mask the problem by “dumbing down” the test. If everyone passes at a much higher rate, the achievement gaps narrow and yearly benchmarks can be less ambitious. But that would serve no one well, least of all our graduates, in the long run. We must prepare them to succeed in college and in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Can the benchmarks be improved? Undoubtedly. In fact, at its September meeting, the state board received a proposal from the superintendent of public instruction to reset many of the math benchmarks. When Virginia and Washington agreed on the formula for reducing achievement gaps, none of us knew the scores that our students would post this spring on the new math SOL tests, which caused passing rates to drop across the state. Now that we have those scores, we will revisit the benchmarks to make sure that they are both ambitious and achievable for all student groups.

Ultimately, Gerson’s real target is the Obama administration’s decision to grant waivers from No Child Left Behind, which Gerson says resulted in “the broad institutionalization of lowered expectations” in schools across America. How ironic that he chose to make his point by attacking math benchmarks in Virginia, where we are having this discussion because we chose to implement tougher math tests. We think the occasional misguided attack is worth it if our future graduates — from all student groups — are better prepared to succeed in college and the workplace.

The writer is president of the Virginia Board of Education.