National education standards: The right answer for Virginia

By Kristen Amundson
Mount Vernon
Sunday, July 11, 2010; C05

Virginia's Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Eleanor Saslaw, the Democratic president of the Virginia Board of Education, agree. Virginia, they say, should not adopt the new Common Core national standards in English and math.

In an era of political polarization, it's always newsworthy when people from opposite sides of the political aisle agree. But unfortunately for Virginia's students, both the governor and the state Board of Education are wrong on this one. They are shortchanging our kids by passing up the opportunity to join a national effort to establish uniform -- and internationally competitive -- standards.

In announcing Virginia's withdrawal from round two of the federal Race to the Top competition, McDonnell indicated that Virginia had no need to adopt the common standards, arguing that the state's Standards of Learning (SOLs) are "much superior." Saslaw concurred in a June 16 statement.

And on first look, the SOL results do present a positive picture of student achievement. Today, Virginia students by wide margins (more than 80 percent) are meeting the state standards.

But what do those standards actually measure? Are they high enough? On at least two measures -- one national, one international -- the answer is no.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, states are free to set their own passing scores on state assessments such as the SOLs. That makes it challenging to compare what fourth-graders in Virginia know against what fourth-graders in other states are expected to master. However, there is growing agreement that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides a common yardstick. Its "proficient" level is as close to a national performance standard as the United States has.

And when Virginia's students are measured against that standard, they don't do very well. While 89 percent of fourth-graders passed the Virginia reading test, just 38 percent met the NAEP proficient level. In math, 43 percent of fourth-graders were at the proficient level, compared with 86 percent who passed the SOL test.

On the eighth-grade reading test, Virginia students are nearly at the bottom using the NAEP standard. While 87 percent of eighth-graders passed the SOL reading test, 32 percent were at the NAEP proficient level. In math, 86 percent of eighth-graders passed the SOLs, but only 36 percent were at the NAEP proficient level.

An internationally recognized achievement exam found much the same results. A comparison of Virginia students' math performance with the standards needed to achieve a passing score on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) found that just 44 percent of eighth-graders would meet the standards.

By awarding a passing grade on standards that do not measure up, Virginia is telling students that they are ready -- for the next grade, for college and for a workplace that increasingly requires advanced skills in reading and math. But ask the 24.2 percent of Virginia high school graduates who have to enroll in one or more remedial classes when they get to college whether they were ready to do college-level work. Ask Virginia employers whether potential employees are ready for the job.

What should Virginia do? The deadline for round two of Race to the Top has passed. (Truthfully, with a round one finish of 31st out of 41 states, Virginia was never in contention anyway.)

But there are steps Virginia can take now. First, the state Board of Education should reexamine the passing scores on the SOL tests so they move closer to the NAEP's proficient rate. Texas offers one example of how to do that while using a carrot (rather than a stick) approach.

Next, Virginia should reconsider endorsing the Common Core standards. Meanwhile, the federal government should get serious about allowing states such as Virginia to keep state standards when they equal or exceed those in the Common Core.

Virginia has a lot to be proud of. The Standards of Learning have established a strong foundation for our children's learning that we can use to build on.

In her statement, Saslaw asserted that the Standards of Learning are "clear and rigorous." They are clear. But they're not rigorous enough. By failing to adopt the Common Core standards, Virginia risks watching our children fall behind the educational achievement of other states -- and, worse, of other countries.

Kristen Amundson is the communications manager for the D.C. think tank Education Sector. A Democrat, she represented the 44th District in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1999 to 2009.

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