As parents sit blissfully by, subtle but damaging shifts are occurring in the Fairfax County Public School System.
The blame lies with Virginia's ill-conceived Standards of Learning (SOLs) and Standards of Accreditation (SOAs). The SOLs are Virginia's blueprint for what kindergarten-through-12th-grade education should accomplish. The SOAs are the stick: If schools don't meet the state minimum, then they will no longer be "accredited" -- a penalty with consequences that have yet to be fully defined or disclosed.
The effect of these educational "reforms" is to elevate a risky set of speculations into mandatory rules. This threatens Fairfax schools, which have been exemplars of excellence in public education.
When President Clinton wanted to praise diversity in public schools, he chose Fairfax County as a model. The county is one of only two school districts in the nation that soon will offer a special advanced placement diploma to its graduating high school seniors. Elementary and middle-school students routinely score among the top achievers in the United States in English, math, science and history. Teachers covet a position in Fairfax County because of the stimulating students, wise use of resources and a shared ambition that includes the willingness to experiment and think in new ways.
The SOL examinations -- to be given in third, fifth and eighth grades and as a determination of readiness for graduation from high school -- require an intense new focus that permits precious little time for anything else. This month, students in Fairfax County Public Schools faced the second round of the SOL exams. The first round administered last year was a disaster. Only 2 percent of Virginia schools were able to muster 70 percent of their student body to pass all four tests. If a school didn't reach that mark on every subject, it was considered "failing." Predictably, Gov. James Gilmore is waving the first-year results on the SOLs as a red flag and looking at vouchers and private schools as the salvation.
A common criticism of the SOLs is that they encourage "teaching to the test" to the detriment of abstract thinking and analytical skills, but in some ways that criticism is misplaced. Teaching to a test is not necessarily bad. The question is whether the test is worth teaching to. In other words, it comes back to the standards themselves, and whether their underlying foundation is flawed.
At the elementary school my child attends, I see nervous teachers who don't dare spend extra time exploring topics in depth because they must cover a huge volume of material. Long-standing activities have been consolidated to preserve time for academics, and recess time has been reduced. Principals and teachers are trying to make sure they do everything they can to be seen in a favorable light. What is lost is a student-centered approach and the quest for excellence rather than mere technical competence.
Some schools have eliminated the Junior Great Books program -- a wonderful enrichment activity that allows elementary children to read great works of literature and talk about the stories in the kind of rich detail that foreshadows college liberal arts courses.
Other programs also may fall by the wayside. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, for example, is a challenging academic regimen in which students must take external exams in six subjects, and complete a social service project and a paper to earn a diploma. Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel Domenech predicts that because of the SOLs the program must undergo changes. Even though IB is an internationally recognized benchmark of excellence, top students instead may need to focus some time on rote memorization to pass the SOL exit exam.
I cannot speak with authority about how the SOLs and SOAs should be fixed. The educational experts can handle that task. But as a parent, I need to take stock of the benchmarks of excellence, insist that they remain, challenge state officials on their vision of what a quality education consists of and make sure Fairfax doesn't quietly go off course.
-- Edwin C. Darden
chairs the education committee of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.