The Examiner (Washington, D.C.), December 18, 2009
Recent revelations indicate that Virginia’s public schools aren’t performing as well as educators claim, a classic example of the smoke screen phenomenon. In states across the country, officials hide the real performance of schools and students from the prying eyes of parents and the public.
In Fairfax County, schools are given the option of eschewing the Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams, which are the state’s standardized tests, in favor of portfolio assessment of certain students. Under the new assessment regimen, teachers evaluate English-language learners or special education students using worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. The number of students who “pass” their subjects has shot up under the new, more subjective evaluation system.
At one Fairfax County school, the reading passage rate for English-language learners shot from only 52 percent to 94 percent in two years. Among special education students, the reading passage rate skyrocketed from 34 percent to 100 percent.
Parents rightly wonder whether they are the victims of an academic hoax.
Andy Rotherham, the influential head of Education Sector, notes that 98 percent of Virginia public schools are “accredited” based on student results on the SOL exams. Rotherham observes, however, that to be accredited, a school must have roughly seven of every 10 students pass the SOL tests.
He points out, “School performance is judged only by average scores so schools can be accredited even if many minority or poor students fail the SOLs.” Further, “the scores a student must achieve to pass the SOLs often do not indicate preparation for post-secondary opportunities in college, the military, or the trades.”
Such efforts to camouflage school and student performance are not restricted to Virginia. Across the country in California, the state uses the Academic Performance Index, or API, to measure school performance.
Most Californians have little idea what these numbers mean because the API doesn’t talk about performance in terms that people understand, such as grade level proficiency, which basically means that students have gained full mastery over grade-level subject matter.
In contrast, the API masks the real performance problems at schools, including those that are seemingly high-achieving. Take, for example, Beverly Hills High School.
In 2008, the school posted an API score of 805 (on a scale of 200 to 1000), above the state target of 800. Yet, behind the API score, four of every 10 11th-graders scored below the proficient level on the state English test, and more than half of students taking the state algebra 2 test and nearly 60 percent of those taking the state geometry exam failed to achieve proficiency.
California’s school accountability law just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and virtually no schools have ever been subjected to the supposedly tough consequences contained in the law.
States should look at systems like those in Sweden, where parents, regardless of income, are eligible for a voucher they may use to send their children to the public or independent school of their own choosing.
Instead of rigging reporting systems like in the United States, market competition in Sweden has forced public schools officials to institute real reforms in response to parental demand. Thus, unless parents have the option of leaving the public schools, don’t expect those schools to improve markedly, to offer more transparent and understandable data, or to be more accountable to those whose taxes support them.