By any standard measure, Fairfax County's Langley High is one of the country's best public high schools.
Its average SAT score of 1,177 is 161 points higher than the national average. It was among the 7 percent of Virginia schools that met the state's benchmarks last spring on rigorous new achievement tests. And it ranks fourth among 139 Washington area high schools on a scale that measures how much schools encourage their students to take advanced-level courses.
But none of that will count when Fairfax school officials look at whether Langley has met its goal for this school year. Under a system that went into effect this fall, Langley has been told to achieve higher test scores this year than the year before. Like every other elementary, middle and high school in the county, it has been given a numerical target for improvement, and it will get another one the following year.
The goals are based on student performance on two exams--the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and the Stanford 9.
The formula used to calculate the targets is complicated, and no one is quite sure how easy or hard it will be to reach them. But the new approach of calling for test-score gains at every school, even top-performing ones like Langley, is generating much debate among parents, teachers and principals in Fairfax, a school system that is already far above state and national averages in nearly every statistical category.
Many parents and educators say that the new system, developed by Fairfax Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech with the School Board's blessing, only reinforces the myth that a school's worth can be boiled down to a test result. And they fear that the emphasis in classrooms on test preparation--already strong because of state penalties for low performance on the SOL exams--will become even more pronounced.
"Teachers are already feeling pressured by the SOLs, spending more and more time getting students ready. This will only add to that," said Suzanne Walter, whose son is a junior at Langley.
Kathy Smith, who has children at Poplar Tree Elementary, Rocky Run Middle and Chantilly High, says the demand for ever-higher scores is misguided.
"I think our schools are doing a great job, and my fear now is that this is going to lead to a focus on the tests even greater than it is now," Smith said. "Education is so much more than that."
But there are also many parents who applaud the push to make all schools focus on getting more out of their students. They argue that this is precisely the kind of prodding needed in Fairfax, where the high scores that students have achieved may have more to do with their affluent family backgrounds than with the school system's efforts.
"The district is always talking about its fantastic programs, but they're not necessarily stretching children, schools or the teachers," said Mary Evans, who has a daughter at West Potomac High School. And, she adds, "If some of the teaching-to-the-test means getting back to some of the basic stuff, well, I'm not convinced that that won't help some of our students who are truly struggling."
"Every school has areas in which they can improve, even Langley," said Robin Chandler, who has two children at Langley and is the school's PTA president.
Fairfax's approach is one that a growing number of school districts are adopting. In the effort to scrutinize school performance and hold teachers and principals more accountable, school officials increasingly are moving beyond setting a minimum standard that everyone must meet. They also want every school to keep showing progress, in much the same way that a business is expected to show steady growth in earnings.
In Montgomery County, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is working on a system that will measure each school's productivity based on whether its test scores are rising or falling. Prince William Superintendent Edward L. Kelly this fall announced numerical targets for improvement at every school, involving not only test scores but also such categories as student attendance and level of satisfaction voiced by parents in a survey.
Such plans appeal to school boards and taxpayers who want tangible proof that school funds are being spent effectively, education analysts say.
"I think this shows the level of accountability under which modern-day superintendents are being asked to operate," said Gary Galluzzo, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University.
At this point, there are no rewards or sanctions attached to Fairfax's school goals. But Domenech believes that schools will still have plenty of motivation. He said the district will publicize whether a school has reached its annual target and will formally recognize those that do.
He and other supporters of the plan say it forces good schools to work harder to raise the performance of their weak-to-average students, because they can't realistically expect to meet their goal just by getting more out of their best pupils.
"Even at our best schools, there are youngsters performing at the lowest level," Domenech said. "We need to concentrate on bringing those students who are below par or at par to a level of excellence."
William L. Sanders, a University of Tennessee professor, has taken this idea a step further by developing a system that assesses teachers based on whether each of their students has improved from the previous year. He says that a pattern of improving or flat scores is revealing.
"Done appropriately, there is no question that you can use that kind of data to fairly measure the impact that a school and teachers are having on student learning," said Sanders, who is director of the Value-Added Research and Assessment Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
But many researchers are wary of any formula that is based on test scores alone.
"Does improvement in test scores mean that learning is taking place or that students have simply become better test-takers?" said Eva Baker, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
By demanding higher test scores and nothing else, Fairfax's plan ignores the many other things that go into making a school good or bad, said Rick Baumgartner, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest teachers union.
"We're forgetting that there are things that can't be easily measured but should still be part of a school assessment," Baumgartner said. "Are the kids happy? Do the staff show care and consideration for the students? Are the parents involved?"
Domenech agrees that many intangibles contribute to a school's success or failure. But that argument should not be used as an excuse to avoid setting measurable goals at every school, he said.
"I understand the concerns, but we can't just continue to operate blindly," said Domenech, who has been superintendent since January 1998. "We have to have a method of quantifying our success. That's one of the reasons why I was brought here."
Domenech said the district each year will reevaluate the formula used to calculate the schools' goals, to see what the "ceiling effect" is. He acknowledges that at some point, top-performing schools will have nowhere to go.
Fair or not, the system of goals is inevitable in the current political climate, many teachers and principals say.
"It will focus the teaching and learning--although not necessarily in the areas I would choose," said Langley High's principal, John English. "But in the larger picture, we are teaching to standards now and we're being held accountable for our students' performance. And I think it's time for educators to stand up and be accountable for their work, just like other professionals."
A Goal for Every School
Fairfax County has set annual goals for each of its schools, based on student performance on the most recent Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and Stanford 9 exams. Each student gets a score of 0, 50 or 100 in each of the basic subjects that were tested, according to these guidelines:
Score SOL test Stanford 9*
0 Fail Below 50th percentile
50 Pass (proficient level) 50th to 74th percentile
100 Pass (advanced level) Above 74th percentile
At each school, those student scores are totaled and divided by the number of tests that were administered. That result becomes the school's "achievement index."
For 1999-2000, each elementary school has been given the goal of raising its achievement index by five points. At each middle and high school, the goal is a gain of three points.
*Stanford 9 results are used for students in grades that do not take the SOL tests.
SOURCE: Fairfax County Public Schools