Education reformer blasts state officials after release of latest standardized test scores

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FREDERICKSBURG — Hours after Virginia released a mixed bag of standardized test scores, a national education expert called for the firing of the state superintendent of instruction and charged that families are being misled about their children’s academic performance.

Education reformer RiShawn Biddle, blogging at Dropout Nation, assailed the existence of “dropout factories and failure mills such as the Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria, where only 22 percent of fourth-graders passed the state’s reading exam this year.”

“When it comes to proficiency, Virginia’s education officials have long attempted to argue that districts are all above average. This thinking doesn’t stand scrutiny when you compare the percentage of children scoring at the highest levels on the Old Dominion’s battery of exams to the percentage of kids passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of student achievement,” he said.

Biddle on Tuesday called for “sacking state Superintendent of Instruction Patricia Wright.” He said Wright’s “defense of the status-quo from any real changes is one reason why Virginia is doing so poorly by its children.”

Biddle said the commonwealth’s “low rate of improvement — especially among fourth-graders, whose success or struggle in reading and math is harder to improve once they move on to the latter grades — stands in contrast to the improvements both nationwide and in Florida, a Southern state peer of Virginia that has been more-aggressive in systemic reform.”

“Between 2002 and 2011, there was no change in the percentage of (Virginia) young black men in fourth grade struggling with literacy, with 53 percent of young black fourth-grade boys reading below basic levels.

“The percentage of the Old Dominion’s young white men in fourth grade struggling with literacy has also remained unchanged, with 22 percent of them reading below basic,” said Biddle, who noted the national numbers improved for both cohorts during the period.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, declined to comment on Biddle’s demand for Wright’s ouster. But he strenuously disputed Biddle’s assessment of student performance.

“When you look at what the state Board of Education has done over the last three years, it would be hard to say Virginia is standing pat,” Pyle said.

Pyle said the revamped Standards of Learning exams are not the garden-variety multiple-choice tests used by most states, but “assessments where students have to apply what they know.”

“The country is very much focused on what we’re doing. We are implementing more rigorous standards than other states are planning.”

Pyle acknowledged “there is a lot of daylight between proficiency on the SOLs and the NAEP results.” But he predicted “there will be a lot less daylight” as the new tests take hold.

Chris Braunlich, member of the state Board of Education, said the fact that English and science scores declined this past year was an indicator the SOLs are getting tougher.

State Sen. Tom Garrett said Virginia has a long way to go in closing the equity gap between its poorer and more affluent students.

“The fact is, you can predict (test performance) by ZIP code. That’s unconscionable, unsustainable and un-American,” the Louisa County Republican said.

“We have to do something,” Garrett said, suggesting that state policy makers — including Virginia’s next governor — must challenge the power of the state’s largest teachers union.

He called the Virginia Education Association, which has endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, “an entrenched lobby for educators, not students.”

VEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, has contributed $25,000 to McAuliffe thus far. The American Federation of Teachers has pitched in $125,000. McAuliffe has pledged to raise teacher salaries.

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him atkenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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