RICHMOND, Va. -- As states press for better performance from public schools, they may soon discover a lesson that Virginia learned this year the hard way: If you raise academic expectations, prepare at first for failure.
Virginia has adopted new benchmarks for what students should know from grade to grade in English, mathematics, history and science. Educators here call the benchmarks "Standards of Learning."
But in the first round of testing to see whether students are meeting those standards, more than 97 percent of Virginia schools flunked. A mere 39 of about 1,800 scored high enough to dodge the threat of eventually losing state accreditation. By 2004, high school students who fail the test will not get a diploma. By 2007, schools that do not shape up will lose their accreditation.
School reforms geared to "accountability" are taking root nationwide. The American Federation of Teachers found in a survey last year that 47 states have, or plan to have, tests in sync with new academic standards, up from 33 in 1995. But only a handful of states exact tough penalties for poor performance on the tests, in part because schools and teachers have only begun to adapt.
`Going to move forward now'
Virginia education officials, stung by newspaper headlines disclosing the high initial failure rate, contend that their schools will make major strides now that they have received a wake-up call.
"I can't tell you everybody's happy about this, because they're not," said Cameron M. Harris, Virginia's assistant superintendent for assessment and reporting. "But the attitude is, we're going to move forward now for the sake of the kids -- not for the sake of the press coverage. If this is what it takes to put student achievement on the front burner, I'm all for it."
Some critics say the results prove only that the state has not given schools enough time or resources -- including new textbooks, workbooks and teacher-training sessions -- to allow them a fair shot at a passing grade. The standards were adopted in 1995 and the tests first given last spring.
Drawing on a popular metaphor for the school standards movement -- "raising the bar" -- Frank E. Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, said that state officials have set the "bar" for academic success at about the right height. But he added: "What they didn't do was give me enough running room to get up enough speed to jump over it. It's like asking me to pole vault and not giving me a pole."
`Stakes are way too high'
Others, noting that many schools fell just short, complained that Virginia set unrealistically high thresholds for students to pass the exams and for schools to avoid state sanctions. Still others complained that the tests do not fully measure quality of education.
"The stakes are way too high," said Edward Kelly, superintendent in Prince William County, southeast of Washington. Not one of Kelly's schools, in a system with 52,000 students, made the state's grade. "Let's say you have a high school whose average SAT scores are above 1100, with a high percentage of students going to the better colleges. And then you turn around and say, `Oh, but 70 percent of your kids didn't pass [the state tests] so you're not an accredited school?' There's some inconsistency there."
Under Virginia rules, by 2007 schools must have 70 percent of their students achieve a passing grade, in most cases, to avoid losing state accreditation. Officials have not defined what losing accreditation would mean beyond requiring schools to take corrective action. Some states allow for personnel shake-ups or state takeover.
To many educators and parents, fearful of sullying the image of their schools and their neighborhoods, the denial of accreditation sounds ominous.
Days after the scores came out, state officials took steps to quell such fears. Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III found $3.3 million in his budget to enable schools to administer the next round of testing later in the school year, on the premise that teachers could pack in more lessons beforehand. The governor and the president of the state board of education also agreed not to place the first year's scores on high school student transcripts. And state officials said that more plans are in the works to help struggling schools.
Most Virginia schools are racing to upgrade their curricula, assuming that the standards and tests are here to stay. Two in the suburban Richmond community of Henrico County offer pointers on how educators are facing the challenge.