Every Fairfax County school will be given an annual target for improving its standardized test scores under a plan announced yesterday by Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech that is the first of its kind in the Washington area.
D.C. schools now receive cash bonuses if they meet certain performance goals, but Fairfax is the only area district to demand improvement at each of its schools, even the most high-performing ones.
Domenech said he eventually wants to create rewards for Fairfax schools that consistently meet their benchmarks, and sanctions for schools that regularly fall short. That idea would need School Board approval before taking effect.
Domenech, hired nearly two years ago with a mandate to raise achievement and accountability in a school system that some believed had been resting on its laurels, said his plan challenges every student and teacher in Fairfax to meet a higher standard. He also contended that measuring each school against its past performance is more equitable than asking all schools to meet the same benchmark regardless of the size of their population of low-income and immigrant students.
"This will provide schools with a clear focus, and it will allow us to determine how well a school is doing," he said. "This model treats all the schools alike. There is no competition between schools. They're competing with themselves."
Under the plan, each Fairfax elementary school will be given an "achievement index" -- a score based on its students' performance on both the state Standards of Learning (SOL) exams and the Stanford 9 achievement test. Each school will be expected to improve its achievement index by five points each year.
Domenech said school officials selected that figure after concluding that an annual gain as high as five points was unlikely to be attributable to chance.
The targets for middle and high schools, which also will be linked to test scores, will be announced next month, he said.
He will present the plan to the School Board tomorrow, but board members approved the concept of school-by-school goals last year and do not need to vote on the benchmarks. The goals will take effect this school year.
Although the details of the plan drew initial praise yesterday from board members, some parents expressed concern that demanding higher test scores at every school will only lead to more "teaching to the test" in Fairfax classrooms. Many parents already have complained that the new state SOL exams -- which will determine which public schools keep their accreditation -- are forcing teachers to discard valuable lessons so they can concentrate on preparing students for the tests.
"I'm not sure that standardized testing can accurately depict what's going on in a school," said Mischel Levine, who has three children at Mantua Elementary School, one of the few schools in Fairfax and in the state that met the state's performance benchmarks on the SOL exams.
Levine said that although her children's school is capable of meeting the annual test-score targets Domenech has announced, the effort to do so will mean "more time taken away from real learning to focus on rote teaching and fact memorization."
But Domenech said that clear, measurable goals are the best way to motivate schools and that test scores provide such a yardstick. Several School Board members agreed.
"I think it's a good concept," said board member Carter S. Thomas (Springfield). "It's similar to what's done in developing individualized education plans for students -- putting each child on a track for improvement at an individual pace. That approach has been relatively effective."
Board members have mixed views on the idea of rewards and sanctions. At this point, the only Fairfax schools that face such consequences are 20 low-performing schools that risk having their staffs replaced if they do not meet a set of achievement goals by 2002 and that will get financial rewards if they reach the targets. Domenech announced that plan last spring.
Those 20 schools were given extra teachers and more classroom hours, and several board members said that other schools should not be threatened with sanctions without first ensuring that they have adequate resources.
Domenech said he would like to go to a system of rewards and penalties for all county schools soon. "I would like to see something systemwide, the sooner the better -- two years at the most," he said.
Board members were more cautious on a timetable for that. "I think that's probably a good long-term goal, but we're not even close to being there yet," said Robert E. Frye Sr. (At Large), the board chairman.