Virginia's stance against national standards is a blow for students

Saturday, June 5, 2010

VIRGINIA OFFICIALS say they don't want to go along with a federal push for common academic standards because their state standards are so much better. The argument is a little unconvincing considering that bureaucrats came up with it before knowing what the national standards would look like. What makes Virginia's stance even more puzzling is that the state had originally agreed it was a good idea for high school students -- no matter where they live -- to be held to the same measurable expectations. Virginia's decision takes the state out of the running for a pot of money in the federal Race to the Top competition, but the real loss is likely to be felt by students.

A state-led movement, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, has been developing the common standards for what students should learn in math and reading. A draft has been circulated, but the final report was just released on Wednesday. The movement, in which 48 states are participating, is voluntary, but the Obama administration has made it a centerpiece of its education reform efforts, holding out the carrot of federal funds to those states willing to commit.

"We can't go back . . . . Our standards are much superior. They're well accepted," Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) declared last week about Virginia's Standards of Learning. Without question, Virginia led the way nationally when it adopted the SOLs in the 1990s under former governor George Allen (R). There are, though, limitations to state tests, and it would be shortsighted of Virginia not to entertain other options. For one, America is a more mobile society than it used to be, and there are advantages, for both schools and students, to working off the same page.

The common core offers the opportunity for collaboration on assessment development and would allow for real comparisons between states and their students. As it is now, deficiencies are masked by the patchwork of state standards and tests. In contrast, the new standards will be internationally benchmarked.

Maryland has opted to endorse the standards. So has the District. Massachusetts, generally regarded as having the best and most rigorous state standards, is keeping an open mind. Unless Virginia reconsiders, it runs the risk of being left behind in the drive for academic clarity and rigor.

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