The two governors who have pushed tough new learning standards in Virginia schools said today that their statewide testing initiative has some growing pains, while legislators of both parties said the General Assembly will tinker with the program to improve it before leaving town in March.
At a Capitol news conference, former governor George Allen (R) and Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) agreed that Standards of Learning testing of Virginia's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders and high school students is imperfect but fundamentally sound. Allen was the moving force behind the SOL program, and Gilmore, his successor, is in charge of making it work.
"We're making a great deal of progress, but this is a long, long effort," Gilmore said. "In fact, it shall never end."
Allen added: "What we're doing in Virginia, it is difficult. It is hard, having to realize" that curricula must be strengthened.
Allen, now a U.S. Senate candidate, and Gilmore, midway through his four-year term, did not say exactly what the program's kinks are or suggest specific ways to improve it. But Gilmore has set aside $60 million in his biennial budget to smooth implementation of the program in schools, including $17 million for early reading intervention; $17 million for SOL-related computers; $10 million for remedial math in upper grades; and nearly $12 million to get SOL information to students, parents and teachers more efficiently.
The SOL exams eventually will determine which students graduate from high school and which schools retain their accreditation. The exams have met with some fierce parental resistance across the state.
Although scores have improved since the first round of testing in 1998 and polling data seem to show widespread support for some form of accountability testing, many parents and teachers have said that some of the exams require too much memorization and that the state should consider other factors when assessing student and school performance.
As long as the central mission remains unchanged, Gilmore and Allen appeared content to let the legislature refine the SOL program--or, as Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) put it today, to let the new Republican majority in the legislature "tweak them some."
Like many of his assembly colleagues, Dillard, co-chairman of the influential House Education Committee, heard incessant complaints about the SOL exams from Northern Virginia parents while campaigning for reelection in the fall.
"There are real, legitimate concerns," Dillard said. "What we want to do is make this work properly."
Dillard said he will sponsor a measure allowing parents to see copies of old SOL tests once the state has a large enough stockpile of exam questions in all subject areas. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said she will introduce a bill to ensure that SOL test scores are not the sole criteria for high school graduation, a proposed change that has been greeted with skepticism by the Virginia Board of Education.
Senior Gilmore aides conceded today that the state has done a poor job of informing families and educators about the rationale for the SOL program and its benefits, such as preparing young people for college and the workplace.
"We need to do a better job at communicating," said Kirk T. Schroder, the Gilmore-appointed chairman of the state Board of Education.
Compounding the weak communication was an unusually harsh address given last week to senior senators by Wilbert Bryant, Gilmore's education secretary, Gilmore advisers said today.
A day after the General Assembly convened, Bryant bluntly told members of the Senate Education Committee that "to be against the assessments and the accountability measures is to be against high academic standards."
Invoking former president Richard M. Nixon by name, Bryant said a "silent majority" of Virginians supports the SOL program against a well-organized, "small band of naysayers."
"Our success will silence this vocal minority," Bryant said.
Howell, a committee member, and other legislators said they were horrified by the tone and substance of Bryant's address. "They have drawn a line in the sand: 'You agree with us, or you're irrelevant,' " Howell said.
CAPTION: Former Virginia governor George Allen gestures during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond. Gov. James S. Gilmore III looks on.