The Virginia Department of Education is currently reviewing its Standards of Learning and it looks as though the changes are the biggest in the Standards’ recent history.
The Department is under great pressure to get these changes to the Standards right. Parents have relied on the Standards to ensure their children will be ready for college or a career when they graduate. For no group of parents is this more important than military parents.
Military families, like ours, want states like Virginia to adopt high, meaningful standards. In our experience, the quality of schools can be uneven. We also know high standards, backed-up by rigorous testing, ensure a high-quality education, no matter where the military sends you.
Thanks to duty stations in northern Virginia and the Norfolk area, there are many military families in the commonwealth. It has the second-largest population of military personnel of any state in the country, including the largest population of Navy staff. While Virginia’s military population is large, it is not constant.
One thing military families learn is that when Uncle Sam tells you to move, you pack your rucksack and go — no debate. And, as the wife of an Army colonel, I unfortunately know that call comes often.
The average military-connected student moves between six and nine times between kindergarten and graduating high school. This compares to the average student who might move two or three times during the same period.
Our family is an example of that statistic. My oldest son, who is entering ninth grade, has attended schools in six states since kindergarten. Unfortunately, his current school won’t be his last.
One reason military parents have viewed a Virginia assignment positively has been the quality of the state’s education. Historically, Virginia had a reputation of having high and meaningful standards.
For example, to ensure students have mastered minimum benchmarks at each grade in four core subjects, the Department tests students throughout their public school career.
But testing is only one piece of the puzzle. Earlier this year, the independent education organization Achieve released a report that compared the proficiency scores students received on the Standards of Learning assessments with the scores the same students received on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. The NAEP tests are considered the gold standard against which all other test results are judged.
Achieve found that Virginia had one of the the biggest gaps between the state assessment scores and the NAEP test scores. This is known as the “honesty gap.” Virginia reported state proficiency rates that exceed NAEP by 34 percentage points in one measure and 36 percentage points in the other.
Furthermore, while most states had closed the gap between the scores in the past year, Virginia was actually one of four states where the gap has grown. As a result, Virginia earned a rating of “honesty challenged.”
Since we know the problem is not with the NAEP tests, the problem must be with how the state is measuring student proficiency on the Standards of Learning assessments. To show parents their children are succeeding, the Department of Education has lowered the bar for proficiency, which means more students will meet the lower level and be deemed proficient.
This may make parents feel good for a while. But if it keeps up, it will ultimately hurt Virginia’s reputation and desirability as a duty station.
This is already becoming evident for military families moving to Virginia. Whereas many military families used to worry that their students would “be behind” once they got here, I am not alone in finding that students are actually more proficient than their Virginia peers.
This is especially key right now. The Army says it has far more facilities than it needs — with 33 percent excess infrastructure. It has also announced that the quality of education at local schools near bases will be a factor in whether to keep or close a base. As a result, the honesty gap could have significant consequences for Virginia.
If Virginia wants to protect its reputation as an education leader, the Department of Education needs to address the honesty gap now. It must take the necessary steps to hold students to high levels of proficiency on the Standards of Learning assessments. Military families, and indeed all families who care about strong public schools, are looking to the commonwealth for leadership.