As the 12-year-old daughter of then-Gov. Linwood Holton Jr., I helped integrate our formerly racially divided public schools here in Virginia. I have spent much of my working life focused on children and families at the margin, with full appreciation of the crucial role education can and must play in helping young people escape poverty and become successful adults.
As Virginia’s education secretary , I oversee one of the strongest public education systems in the nation. Our graduation rates are well above average, and we outperform most other states on the Nation’s Report Card. A significant factor in our success has been the Standards of Learning (SOL) accountability system Virginia implemented in the 1990s. The rest of the nation followed in Virginia’s footsteps when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2001. Virginia led again when we moved several years ago from assessing for minimum competency to our current college- and career-readiness standards, complete with rigorous, high-stakes testing.
Our successes have come with challenges. Parents, educators and students resoundingly tell us that our kids are over-tested and over-stressed. Eight- and 10-year-olds suffer through multi-hour tests that measure their endurance more than their learning. Barely verbal special education students whose individualized education plans are focused on independent living skills are instead drilled incessantly on a handful of facts for a modified SOL exam. Teachers are teaching to the tests. Students’ and teachers’ love of learning and teaching are sapped.
Most troublesome, Virginia’s persistent achievement gaps for low-income students have barely budged. We have done a good job of identifying challenges but have been less successful in addressing them. An unintended consequence of our high-stakes approach is that it is now even harder to recruit and retain strong educators in our high-poverty communities. Many of the best opt instead for schools where demographics guarantee better test scores; too often fine teachers leave the profession.
In Virginia, we are ready to lead the nation again. Last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and our General Assembly took bipartisan action to reform the SOLs. We eliminated five end-of-course tests and created an SOL Innovation Committee to recommend further changes. This year — again with strong bipartisan support — we are moving to credit progress and growth more when we evaluate our schools.
The parents, educators, school board members, legislators and business leaders on the Innovation Committee are looking more broadly at what our graduates need for success as citizens and workers in the 21st century and at how we can best guide our schools toward those outcomes. Business leaders tell us they need students with skills such as oral communication, teamwork and problem-solving as much as substantive knowledge. As we work to grow and diversify our economy, our Innovation Committee is looking at how our schools can better meet those needs.
This approach will probably generate even bolder proposals. Strong accountability will continue to be a hallmark of our system, but we have faith that, as has been said, “Responsibility and delight can coexist.”
Students need congressional leaders to follow Virginia’s example of bipartisanship to enact common-sense changes to federal education laws now. Those changes should focus on enabling local and state educators to prepare every child for success as adults and inspire and encourage states. But they also should leave us sufficient flexibility to improve our accountability systems, reintroduce creativity into the classroom and better address persistent achievement gaps.
Thankfully, leaders on Capitol Hill are also hearing calls for reform. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have co-sponsored legislation to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Education Committee voted — unanimously — to send it to the full Senate for consideration; it is expected to be taken up soon. The same spirit of bipartisanship was demonstrated in the House recently when Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation to improve early learning. I encourage every member of Congress to set aside partisan concerns, find commonalities and take action this year to fix No Child Left Behind so that we can move all our children forward on the road to success.
The writer is Virginia’s education secretary.