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Virginia Board of Education delays review of history standards

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The Virginia Board of Education delayed proposed revisions to state standards for history and social studies lessons at a Wednesday meeting, the first held with the five-member majority newly appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The reconstituted nine-member board on Wednesday also heard the details of an initiative by Youngkin (R) establishing “lab schools” via partnerships between colleges and K-12 districts and voted to alter how the state will assess the academic performance of some students with disabilities this year.

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The 2022 History and Social Science Standards of Learning, known as SOLs, were not up for a final vote on Wednesday; they were just supposed to be accepted by the board for a “first review.” Instead, though, the board accepted a recommendation from Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to delay this review by one month.

Balow said she wants the extra time to hold briefings with new board members, make corrections and gather more public feedback before reconsidering the guidelines. This paves the way for further revisions. The final vote on the standards is slated for November.

The 402-page standards, now being reviewed and revised, were developed over months in consultation with museums, historians, professors, political scientists, geographers, economists, teachers, parents, business leaders and students. They suggest a host of revisions to course content, structure, themes and concepts — in one example requiring that students draw more connections to their local area and history. Other updates include de-emphasizing memorization and changing all references to Native Americans to read “Indigenous Peoples.”

One of the “guiding principles” that shaped the standards — which must be revised every seven years, per state law — was a desire to “incorporate diverse perspectives,” including acknowledging “that perceptions are influenced by various socio-cultural aspects.”

Explaining her request to delay accepting the guidelines, Balow said Wednesday: “Number one is time … we have five new board members who have not had that time” to review the standards.

“Number two is corrections,” she said, saying that she has received a large number of public responses pointing out errors, for example a much-publicized error in which a reference to George Washington as “Father of our Country” was accidentally deleted.

“And there are some content issues too, frankly,” she said.

The board accepted Balow’s recommendation to postpone its review of the standards until September. All of Youngkin’s appointees argued for the delay.

“We might think it’s funny about the George Washington … issue,” said board member and Youngkin appointee Bill Hansen. “But these are the things, too, that can get this whole process off the rails if we’re not careful.”

The five members Youngkin appointed to the board shortly after taking office are Suparna Dutta, a telecommunications professional and Fairfax County Public Schools parent; Grace Turner Creasey, executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education; Hansen, who has served as U.S. deputy secretary of education; Andy Rotherham, a co-founder of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners; and H. Alan Seibert, the constituent services and government relations officer for Roanoke City Public Schools.

Before Youngkin’s appointments, the board had only people appointed by former Democratic governors Ralph Northam or Terry McAuliffe. In recent years, the board supported policies touted by Democrats. Youngkin achieved his five-member majority after Virginia House Republicans voted not to confirm three Northam appointments to the education board — Jamelle S. Wilson, Anthony Swann and Stewart D. Roberson, who had started serving their terms before official confirmation.

The Republicans’ vote, which went against precedent and was widely seen as retribution for Senate Democrats’ rejection of Youngkin’s pick for state secretary of natural and historic resources, meant Wilson, Swann and Roberson saw their terms end years earlier than expected.

On Wednesday, the board voted to approve funding guidelines for lab schools across the state. These are public schools designed and built by institutions of higher education or private companies in collaboration with K-12 school districts. Lab schools have existed in some form in Virginia since the 1950s, although a 2010 law laid out a formal framework for their setup.

During the 2022 legislative session, the General Assembly agreed — in line with Youngkin’s hopes — to allot $100 million to a College Partnership Laboratory Fund specifically for developing lab schools.

The lab school guidelines adopted by the board explain how money from this fund will be distributed, the application process and evaluation, and spending rules and accountability for the grant funding.

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The board also approved slight revisions to how computer science courses can be used to satisfy graduation requirements, as well as standards for physical education that emphasize motor skills, fitness, “energy balance” and “social and emotional development.”

The board also agreed to update the way the state education department calculates student performance levels for a small group of Virginia students with “significant cognitive disabilities,” who overall make up about 1 percent of the state’s public schoolchildren.

Virginia gives students in this category an annual assessment called VAAP, meant to gauge their academic standing. But in 2021-2022, the state switched from a VAAP based on students’ submitted work samples to a VAAP based on multiple-choice questions. Amy Siepka, director of accountability for the Virginia Department of Education, told board members Wednesday that the testing change made it impossible for educators to compare 2020-2021 scores to 2021-2022 scores — meaning they were unable to calculate these students’ progress year-to-year for that time frame.

Normally, annual progress is factored in when officials determine the student performance rating for schools, which in turn helps decide school accreditation. To compensate for the lack of this particular growth measure this year for these students, the Education Department proposed — just for this year — ignoring failing VAAP tests for some students with disabilities when calculating accreditation.

The proposal — like nearly every item discussed Wednesday — drew much back-and-forth and a long string of challenging questions from board member Dutta, who dominated the discussion. Dutta seemed skeptical that the education department had done enough, across the board, to consult parents. Often during the meeting, the other eight board members voted in favor of moving the conversation along or approving agenda items with only Dutta voting against.

When Dutta asked what parents had to say about revising the use of VAAP tests this year, Siepka ultimately said that the department did not contact parents about this particular issue, but said documents detailing the change were posted publicly where anyone could see them.

Dutta was the only board member to vote against the proposal, which passed. She warned: “I don’t think our parents are happy.”

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