PTA leader Edwin Darden writes that Fairfax schools are "exemplars of excellence" ["Fixing What Isn't Broken," Close to Home, June 20]. A decade ago, he would have been right, but academic standards have fallen dramatically since then.

From 1988 to 1994, for example, fourth-grade spelling results on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills dropped from the 79th percentile to the 69th for Asian students, from the 57th to 48th for blacks, from 60th to 41st for Hispanics and from 69th to 63rd for whites. Minority students, with more limited access to private or parental tutoring, suffered most.

The cause? In 1987 elementary schoolteachers were ordered to stop using phonics, basal readers and spelling books and were switched to an untested "whole language" approach to reading. It didn't work.

In math? Since the mid-'80s, county curriculum administrators have taken a position that "drill discourages curiosity." In math computation, from 1988 to 1996 on the eighth-grade Iowa tests, Asian students fell from the 90th to the 77th percentile, blacks from the 50th to 35th, Hispanics from 67th to 41st and whites from 78th to 61st.

Failed curriculum also brought other changes in Fairfax. Principals now promote 199 out of 200 elementary children. Teachers in middle schools and high schools are pressured by the school administrative to limit Ds and Fs. As a result, many students say, "Why study?" Teachers wonder too.

With such flavor-of-the-month changes in curriculum leaving Fairfax County teachers exhausted, it's tempting to oppose the changes required for Virginia's Standards of Learning. But local standards haven't worked, and teachers need the authority to use curriculum that does work in real classrooms.

If Virginia's standards and assessments are continually improved, they will drive needed changes in our schools, and once again Fairfax County will have the opportunity to become an "exemplar of excellence."

-- Rick Nelson

is president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.