EDUCATIONAL RIGOR has long been Virginia’s point of pride. So reports that up to 250 public schools in the state are in danger of being downgraded this fall are disconcerting. Specific ratings won’t be released until September, but about a third of Virginia schools are expected to lack “full accreditation” status — compared with less than 1 percent of schools five years ago.
Yet “all of this,” Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, told us, “was something to be fully expected.” For the most part, he’s right.
Five years ago, Virginia began overhauling its state academic standards for major subjects. While it unfortunately did not adopt the nationwide Common Core State Standards, it had worked with national institutions including the College Board to align its math, science and English expectations with “college- and career-ready” benchmarks. In 2012 and 2013, it administered its first reformed state-mandated tests. More rigorous math assessments, first given in 2012, ask students to plot data on a bar graph instead of circling multiple-choice answers. Reading and writing tests first administered in 2013 ask students to interact with the text, such as directly inserting punctuation marks inside passages. Because of this increase in difficulty, the number of downgraded “accredited with warning” schools has grown since 2012.
A shift in regimes takes time. And it takes a toll on teachers, who need to adapt to new standards in their teaching materials and curriculum. But it’s also necessary: better to understand challenges than to cover them up with meager standards.
In New York, proficiency in math more than halved in the first year that state tests reflected the Common Core. But second-year results, released this month, showed gains from the previous year. Likewise, according to Mr. Pyle, preliminary results show that Virginia math scores increased slightly this year. Reading and science scores, he told us, remained relatively flat from last year.
The key is how to move forward. Downgraded schools will undergo an academic review by the Department of Education or local school district, designed to identify needed changes. These measures are rightly not punitive; they provide necessary resources and outside guidance. But if a school remains in the downgraded status for four years, it will undergo a reconstitution or face corrective action by the school board.
Unfortunately, Virginia’s answer to low-performing schools in poor urban and rural districts has been far from persuasive. One of its recent efforts, which would have allowed the state to take over a struggling school, was ruled unconstitutional in June, even though local school boards’ efforts have not been up to par. This new drop in fully accredited schools — while understandable — should serve as an impetus for Virginia’s leaders to act.