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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

In Virginia: The Standards of Learning

      As a test case for state-led efforts to make schools more accountable for student learning, Virginia reflects the ambivalence that many feel about standards for schools. Of course we should have high standards for all students. Who wouldn't support that? And the public has a right to expect schools to provide valid and reliable evidence that students are achieving some measure of proficiency.
      The issue quickly becomes more complex, however. Precisely what standards should be tested, and to what extent should they reflect facts or more conceptual matter? Who decides what the standards should be? What assessments will determine whether students are reaching standards? What assistance will students who fail to reach standards receive, and how will schools prepare teachers to teach to them?
      These are among the issues that Virginia is dealing with as it begins implementing a major new standards and accountability program that ties passing the test to both a student's graduation and a school's accreditation.
      Thus far, the responses to the new program have been mixed. Many educators have criticized the state's Standards of Learning and accompanying tests, saying that they overemphasize factual material and promote rote learning. Yet the standards have received plaudits from the American Federation of Teachers and Education Week. When the first round of testing produced dismal results (only 2.2 percent of the state's schools passed), a new round of questions was raised about the fairness of judging students—and schools—on the basis of scores from a high-stakes assessment. Yet defenders of the program note that scores on the exams are rising—proof that setting the bar high and focusing on results can stimulate improvement.
      In this series, Yvonne Thayer of the Virginia Department of Education describes the sweeping reforms being attempted in Virginia. Ivy Main, a Virginia parent, tells how the Standards of Learning “forced a complacent school to sharpen its focus on performance and cut out time-wasting activities.” And Ray Pasi, a principal, sums up the ambivalence that many educators feel about the Virginia reforms by describing them as “neither a cure-all for education's shortcomings nor the disaster initially feared.” Finally, Katie Ernst, a 7th grade student, reacts to how the new standards affect her learning.

      John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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