FIFTEEN YEARS ago, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and President George W. Bush (R) came together to tackle one of the great civil rights issues facing the country: the failure to give poor — mainly minority — children a good education. They knew the problem wouldn't get solved unless it was measured, and the best way to measure was to test student achievement.
We recently revisited this history with Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) during a discussion of what he would do with public education if he were elected governor next month. Mr. Northam claimed to believe in accountability but was utterly unable to explain what he means by the word. The state's Standards of Learning (SOL), which establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do, aren't working, he said, and should be tossed out. What would replace them? Astonishingly, after almost four years as lieutenant governor and a month away from the election, Mr. Northam had no answer.
Particularly concerning was Mr. Northam's view that because children are diverse, "coming from different backgrounds and different regions," he's "not sure that it's fair" to give them all the same test; they shouldn't be penalized, he said, for the environment they come from. The suggestion that some students should be required to pass one type of assessment, while others are given a different (presumably more rigorous) one, is disconcerting. There is no question that some children come to school handicapped by circumstances not experienced by their better-advantaged peers, but children do better when there are high expectations. Creating different expectations for children does them no favors; it just allows adults to escape responsibility. To borrow a phrase from the history we revisited with Mr. Northam, it is the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Once again, schools and the grown-ups who work in them will be excused and applauded as they graduate poor black students who are not prepared for work or college.
Mr. Northam's comments are part of an unfortunate trend in Virginia to pull back from rigor in assessments and accountability. Instead of adopting the muscular requirements of Common Core and its assessments, the state has stuck with assessments seen to be among the easiest in the nation. Some critical tests, such as the fifth-grade writing SOL, were recently jettisoned. And now state education officials are in the final stages of adopting regulations that would overhaul how schools are accredited. The board would widen a loophole to allow for "locally awarded verified credits" from the local school board in lieu of exam passage. Officials argue there is the need to broaden the lens by which schools are judged. We agree that student growth and closing the achievement gap should be recognized, but the proposal tilts too far toward letting schools off the hook for their failures. The emphasis appears to be not on actually improving schools but rather on approving how they appear.
Virginia once led the nation in recognizing the need for accountability and assessments; the Standards of Learning were established before annual standardized testing became a requirement of federal education law. The next governor of the state should strive to reestablish — not repudiate — that standing.