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Lower Learning

Assuming Virginia's educational superiority — reflexively and without inquiry — cheats our children.



Despite slurping more deeply from the federal revenue trough than most states, Virginia delights in showing disdain for its partner across the Potomac.

The latest example lies in the state's dubious decision to sidestep the Obama education overhaul. Virginia was one of just 15 states that skipped the most recent round of competition for Race to the Top funds, a $4.35 billion pot promoting educational innovation.

And the state is among a shrinking pool unwilling to sign on to a set of national education standards designed to boost America's mediocre performance in global academic competition.

“Our standards are much superior,” Gov. Bob McDonnell asserted back in May, explaining his refusal to replace Virginia's Standards of Learning with so-called Common Core standards in English and math. “A federal mandate to adopt a federal common-core standard is just not something I can accept.”

Yet just how great are those SOL standards? And how are Virginia pupils stacking up in national and international competition?

Frankly, less wonderfully than the state's public-relations machine would lead parents and the business community to believe.

Take a look, for example, at Virginia's performance on the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, known as the nation's report card because pupils across the nation take the same test. On the four tests in reading and math:

- In eighth-grade reading, Virginia tied for the seventh best score in the nation in 2003; in 2009, we dropped to a tie for 20th.

- In fourth-grade math, we tied for ninth in 2003 but 16th in 2009.

- On eighth-grade math, the state ranking dipped from a tie for 14th in 2003 to a tie for 19th in 2009.

- Only in fourth-grade reading did Virginia's ranking improve — from a tie for ninth in 2003 to sixth in 2009.

In three of those four categories, Virginia's raw score on the tests was actually inching up. So if we compare ourselves only to ourselves, as some in the education community do, the uninitiated might conclude that Virginia is doing just fine. To the contrary, comparatively we've been slipping from the forefront to the middle of the pack.

“Virginia is living in a kind of Lake Wobegon world where, within a state's own borders, people think they're doing well,” says Gary W. Phillips, vice president and chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research, in a telephone interview. “It's only when you compare with the outside world” that you see a different reality.

Now how about those SOL standards?

Last month, the Fordham Institute, a respected nonprofit group promoting free-market solutions to educational reform, evaluated state educational standards nationwide. Virginia's English language arts standards merited a B+, comparable in Fordham's view to the new Common Core standards.

Math was another matter. There, Common Core standards “are significantly superior to what [the] Old Dominion has in place today,” Fordham writes.

As for proficiency standards — the level at which a state certifies a pupil as proficient in a given subject — Phillips' analysis reveals an appalling gap in Virginia and many other states.

In 2007, for example, Virginia deemed that 82 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math, based on SOL testing. But when Phillips benchmarked the results to an international standard, only 44 percent were up to snuff.

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education acknowledges concerns over the state's proficiency standards and the flatness of the recent educational progress scores. Corrective action is under way, he says. As for Fordham, the spokesman argues, the group evaluated Virginia's math standards improperly.

Fordham disagrees.

Regardless, the state that can clearly claim the best standards in the nation based on pupil performance, Massachusetts, takes a far different view of the Common Core than McDonnell and the Virginia political elite. Education officials in the Bay State, with far and away the highest scores in the nation, have enthusiastically signed onto the Common Core.

They didn't do so lightly. Massachusetts signed on after an extensive review conducted in part by outside experts, who concluded that the Common Core was actually a step forward. No such independent examination occurred in Virginia.

“By every analysis, the Common Core is as good or better” than the Massachusetts standards, Bay State Secretary of Education Paul Reville says in a telephone interview. Because the national reform allows states to vary from the Common Core by as much as 15 percent, he says, leeway exists to retain any superior state requirements.

He says joining the national reform effort will allow his state to remain in the forefront of educational excellence and innovation, to qualify for Race to the Top funding, and to achieve efficiencies born of pooled efforts. “There's also an element of national citizenship here,” Reville adds. America's future “depends on all our children.”

For Virginia parents and business leaders to assume Virginia's educational superiority, reflexively and without inquiry, cheats our children. When the state opts out of an important wave of national reform, inquiring minds ought to demand a better explanation than we've been given.

Merely claiming excellence or equating something that's federal with the boogeyman won't do.

Margaret Edds is an author and former longtime political and editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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