“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,” goes the sarcastic lyric of an old Mac Davis country song, “when you’re perfect in every way.”
Is Virginia among the states high in pride and short on humility when it comes to K-12 education reform? That is a conclusion one might draw from The Pangloss Index devised by Education Sector, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.
Named after the character in Voltaire’s Candide who insisted, against all evidence, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, Pangloss lists the states in order of how highly they define the academic performance of their public schools, compared with objective measures of that performance.
Virginia ranks No. 7 among the 50 states for excessive optimism in the just-released 2007 Pangloss — 5 places worse than where it stood in 2006.
Massachusetts, the highest-performing state according to the federally financed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is close to the cellar (46th place) in Pangloss – an indication that the state is holding itself to far higher standards than most states.
NAEP is serving as a cross-check against the states’ self-reported data. In fall 2006, the highly regarded Education Trust found that Virginia was reporting 85 percent proficiency in reading on its Standards of Learning (SOL) testing, even though only 37 percent of fourth-graders were reading at the proficient mark on NAEP.
In addition, one-fifth of Virginia eighth-graders test at an abysmal “below-basic” level on NAEP reading – and that proportion declined just 1 percentage point between 1998 to 2007. On a more hopeful note, Virginia did reduce the proportion of fourth-graders reading below-basic on NAEP from 38 percent to 26 percent during that period.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for Virginians to take pride in their state’s leadership in education standards-setting. The Virginia SOL preceded the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and on Jan. 8, 1999, the state took a bracing jolt of reality with the initial release of SOL test results.
Only 39 of Virginia’s 1,800 public schools (2.2 percent) met the accreditation requirement (then being phased in) that at least 70 percent of their students pass tests of their basic knowledge of English, math, science, and history.
Almost a decade later, the report card is much more presentable. Last year was the third straight year that nine of every 10 Virginia public schools met the SOL accreditation benchmark. But the reasons for humility balance those for pride.
If almost 200 schools (10 percent) are chronically falling short, that suggests the need for urgent remedial action. One possibility would be to institute performance-based management of the schools through charter school or other mechanisms. Another would be devising a new performance-based pay system that would help attract the best teachers to schools where they are most needed, and retain them. A third would be to set up a tax-credit program such as Pennsylvania’s so that scholarship organizations could help families find better schools in the private or public sectors.
Virginia’s standards are widely regarded as among the nation’s best, but its testing rules may be too weak. Should it be acceptable that an elementary school can be accredited even if as many as three of every 10 of its students cannot read well enough to pass English? Or that (for example) an eighth-grader can be judged to have achieved proficiency by correctly answering only 29 of 45 questions on the SOL reading test, and 32 of 50 on SOL math?
Virginia is still not acting aggressively enough to aid students stuck in substandard schools. In 2005-06, almost 50,000 Virginia students had the right under NCLB to transfer to better-performing public schools, but only 2 percent did so. Meanwhile, almost 15,000 were eligible for free tutoring, but only about 2,500 received it.
More Virginians deserve the opportunity to share in the benefits of real school reform. Suppose all the creativity going into clever accountability schemes were channeled instead into giving parents more options and teachers greater rewards for going to troubled schools and making a difference. For students stuck in our lowest-performing schools, the improvements, not the illusions, will be the difference makers.
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