August 23, 2016
Submitted to the Virginia Board of Education, Committee on the Standards of Quality
President Cannaday and Members of the Virginia Board of Education,
We are writing to provide the input of the Lexington Institute as the Board of Education (BOE), through its Committee on the Standards of Quality (SOQ or SOQs), reviews those standards and the Standards of Accreditation (SOA or SOAs) in order to provide recommendations to the General Assembly for improvement and alignment with new federal education law.
The Lexington Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public-policy research think-tank headquartered in Arlington. We appreciate the opportunity to provide the BOE our thoughts on useful improvements to the SOQs and SOAs, particularly given the opportunities afforded by, and new requirements of, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Virginia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move beyond the notions of grade-level proficiency and summative assessments to focus on student academic growth, personalizing learning and teaching, and more comprehensive views of student success. As Virginia’s school divisions work to support the educational needs of all students, it is critical that their opportunities to innovate are not restricted by specific state mandates, which may themselves be out of date. While the SOQs and SOAs signify minimum thresholds for expectations for schools, the end result is often a one-size-fits-all instructional approach that holds some back from realizing their potential. All too often, the “floor” these standards set becomes the “ceiling” when it comes to innovation and achievement.
ESSA gives states the opportunity and responsibility to use more powerful measures of learning that better align with innovative instructional practices, like supporting teachers with technology and training to personalize teaching and learning. Personalized learning is a very promising pedagogical approach that can be simply summarized as targeting teaching to the different level and pace at which individual students learn, so students are better engaged with — and share responsibility for — their learning. Already, several of Virginia’s strongest school divisions have initiatives underway to implement this process, and have expressed concern that specific provisions in Virginia’s SOAs and SOQs may pose obstacles to this valuable progress.
To elaborate further, personalized learning tailors a student’s educational experience based on student needs and interests. Students can work at their own pace — with integrated digital resources — allowing students to move on to the next level of learning when they’re ready instead of following rigid seat-time and assessment requirements.
As former Virginia superintendents Dan Domenech and Morton Sherman, now the executive director and associate director of the AASA, the national superintendents’ association, recently wrote, “In our version of personalized learning we envision a transformation in how children are taught and how the system organizes for learning. Each child is treated as a unique individual and his or her education begins with the development of a personalized education plan.”
Overall, the highly individualized approach of personalized learning can be unified with the broad application of state standards. It is important for all students to cover similar content and be held to the same high expectations, but how they do that is where personalized learning and the SOQs and SOAs can reinforce each other; the end goal is the same for all students, but the path to that goal can be different for each student.
We are hopeful that the BOE will take this opportunity to address how some current accountability provisions are out of alignment with instructional practices which have met with widely-recognized success at helping students maximize their individual potential. A well-crafted approach to accountability sets clear, meaningful, and ambitious — but attainable — goals for what students should know and be able to do in successfully completing their educational career ready for higher education, the workforce and civic responsibility.
The Committee on the Standards of Quality can seek to change outdated or prescriptive requirements, especially those in SOQs 1, 2, 3 & 4, that could be changed, clarified, or removed to better align them with instructional innovation, shared decision-making, and current contexts. For example, the dictates of SOQ 3 involving accreditation and assessment tightly lock up decision-making about student progress and success at the state board with narrow definitions of achievement on the SOLs.
In addition, we offer the following comments to frame our thinking more comprehensively as to our recommendations for the overall tenor and approach of the standards:
- Under ESSA, Virginia can emphasize student achievement growth toward rigorous graduation requirements for all students — instead of simple grade-level expectations — in a wide range of subjects. Measuring student growth along individual learning trajectories, including mastering deeper levels of knowledge, is a more robust way of looking at student achievement and provides teachers more opportunities to help students succeed.
- Emphasizing student growth in the context of personalized learning increases educational equity by identifying performance gaps immediately, so students and schools can get the help they need when they need it
- Assessment is a fundamental building block of accountability and the state has the opportunity to replace or improve its assessments with more effective tests that can measure complex demonstrations of subject mastery, incorporate multiple points of learning evidence, and provide a more precise picture of student learning trajectories in a more actionable and timely way.
- ESSA requires at least one additional indicator of student success and/or school quality. Importantly, the draft ESSA accountability regulations from the US Department of Education stipulate that this additional indicator be based on research that shows it will contribute to student achievement or boost graduation rates.
Virginia should consider integrating into the SOQs and SOAs one or more indicators that can address both personalized learning and more traditional instructional approaches. These indicators should be verifiable, quantifiable and contribute to achievement, not be used as loopholes to water down outcomes-based accountability. Recommended indicators include:
- student engagement like chronic absenteeism or discipline incidents;
- educator preparation such as the number of teachers with formal professional development plans that integrate technology into instruction, including through personalized learning; and/or
- locally-developed indicators using data from formative or interim assessments.
By incorporating indicators of student success that gauge, support and enhance personalized learning, the Old Dominion can take a bold step toward a more aligned, cohesive and compelling public education system.
Thank you for considering this input as you work to modernize and revitalize Virginia’s accountability, accreditation and assessment system. The educational performance of the Commonwealth’s schools and the achievement of its students will be greatly enhanced by improving the Standards of Quality and Standards of Accreditation.
Doug Mesecar Don Soifer
Lexington Institute Lexington Institute
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