Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Weekly Column: Virginia Education Official’s Visit Focuses on Improving Student Testing

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of December 3, 2014.
Virginia Education Official’s Visit Focuses on Improving Student Testing
Two weeks ago, Virginia Education Secretary Anne Holton toured Walt Whitman Middle School and Hybla Valley Elementary School at my invitation as part of the state’s effort to change the way we assess school progress.
Virginia school accreditation is largely based on student performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, tests created in 1995 by then-Governor George Allen.  

Thirty schools in Fairfax County were accredited with warning and seven of those schools, including Mount Vernon High School and West Potomac High School, are in the 44th Delegate District along the U.S. 1 Corridor.

While standardized tests are one tool to measure student performance, there is widespread agreement that the strongest predictor of student performance on these tests is family income, not teacher performance.

Additionally, the current school performance assessment system has built-in biases against many schools in our area for a number of reasons. For example, the current method does not factor in student mobility. Schools with high student turnover in low-income areas tend to have many children constantly entering the system who need remedial help.

Also, when schools lose their top performing students to gifted and talented focus schools like Stratford Landing, Thomas Jefferson or others to private school, the teaching staff’s achievements at the community school get diluted.

Mobility is also not always a function of income.  For schools feeding into the Mount Vernon High School pyramid,  27 percent of students are from active duty, military families and many children cycle through Fairfax County from school systems in other parts of the United States.  Many other school systems are not as rigorous as ours.

The current system also does not adequately evaluate student improvement. If a school enables under-performing seventh grader to get to grade level by eighth grade, many consider the school to have done its job. One educator told us about a seventh grader who arrived reading at second grade level. By the end of seventh grade, the child was reading at sixth grade level.  However, this youngster failed the SOL, but the improvement was significant – which should be counted?

If we are going to continue assessing schools with standardized tests (a concept which is debatable in and of itself), we must make some changes. First, closing the achievement gap must be incentivized by focusing on student improvement over  numerous years.  One-year snapshots unfairly stigmatize schools with achievement problems totally unrelated to the  school or the staff’s competence.

Second, student mobility must be considered. Schools with large numbers of single-family residences are advantaged by large numbers of higher-income families and a stable student population. Schools with larger numbers of students moving in and out should not be labeled as underperforming simply because their population is more transient.

Third, students’ performance on tests should not be included in a school’s accreditation until the staff at the school have had a meaningful opportunity to assess and improve a student’s performance. 

Every time I tour a school, I am reminded of how much I still have to learn about the education process as a parent and legislator. I am impressed by the dedication, energy and professionalism that our educators and support staff bring to  our youngsters. Teaching children in one of the most diverse communities and complex learning environments in 

Northern Virginia is one of the most  professionally challenging choices teachers can make. Our education professionals carry these enormous responsibilities with poise and dedication, even though they are underpaid and often under appreciated for the challenges they take on every day, challenges that determine the future  of our children's lives. .

Testing programs can provide some measure of the educational challenges our schools face and identify the need for resources needed in our underfunded schools. I am working to provide our schools more resources and toward an assessment system that rewards and incentivizes student improvement and not one that just maximizes the recruitment of the best-performing students.

Please send me any feedback at scottsurovell@gmail.com. It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.