Ex­am­in­ing our school tests

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is Vir­ginia’s ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary.

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-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 10year-olds suf­fer through mul­ti­hour 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 high­poverty 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 (DWash.) 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.

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