Jennifer McClellan: A productive session for learning

Jennifer L. McClellan

During the 2013 gubernatorial campaign, there was nearly universal agreement that Virginia’s Standards of Learning high-stakes assessment system needed reform. To that end, the 2014 General Assembly eliminated several SOL tests for elementary and middle school students, while still requiring school divisions to administer alternative assessments in the subject areas.

The legislation also established the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee to look broadly at reforming the current system to ensure it is fair, balanced and prepares students for future success.

A number of education reform bills were passed by the General Assembly this session.

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First, HB 1672 repeals the A-F school grading system created in the 2013 session, but never implemented, and requires the Board of Education to redesign the School Performance Report Card so that it is more effective in communicating to parents and the public the status and achievements of the public schools and local school divisions in the commonwealth.

In 2013, I expressed concerns in an op-ed that the A-to-F system would paint an oversimplified, incomplete picture that masks the true nature of many of our schools, judging all schools on the same scale, despite significant differences in the factors affecting performance in those schools.

For example, Richmond Alternative School would have receive a D under the scale and would be judged on the same basis as Thomas Jefferson High School for the Arts and Sciences, positioned to receive an A. However, these schools have very little in common and serve very different communities.

Richmond Alternative School, located in one of Richmond’s most disadvantaged communities, serves students in middle and high school who can be experiencing a variety of barriers, including behavioral problems, potential dropouts, substance abuse and chronic truancy. Nearly 80 percent of Richmond Alternative School’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and are among the most at-risk students in Virginia. Considering these obstacles, not surprisingly, their test scores rank low.

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, one of Virginia’s Governor’s schools, is a magnet school in Fairfax County with a selective admissions process. Students are selected from six Northern Virginia localities based on academic tests, prior academic achievement, recommendations and essays. Only 2.3 percent of Thomas Jefferson’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Judging these schools on the same scale would ignore the amazing transformation happening in the lives of students every day at Richmond Alternative and would not be fair to the students, teachers, parents and policymakers struggling to provide these students with the high-quality education they deserve. I am pleased the General Assembly has reversed course on this policy, focusing instead on judging schools based on their improvement over time.

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Bills passed this year to implement Standards of Learning Innovation Committee recommendations include:

  • HB 1674, providing more flexibility on how often to review the accreditation status of schools; HB 1615, providing flexibility to integrate SOLs for English, math, science, history and social science into multiple subject areas so that any reductions in specific assessments will not negatively impact learning in these subjects; and HB 1675, to allow localities to waive requirements for the 140 clock-hours of instruction and a satisfactory score on an SOL test, or alternative assessment for that course, to earn a diploma — provided the school demonstrates that the student has learned the content and skills included in the relevant SOL-based course.

In addition to SOL reform, the General Assembly passed legislation to limit the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools by requiring the Board of Education to adopt regulations in line with federal guidelines and requirements for notification, reporting and training. This bill was the result of a study by the Virginia Commission on Youth and recent incidents that have demonstrated the physical and psychological damage to children that can result from improper use of seclusion and restraint. For example, one 9-year-old autistic boy testified to the House and Senate Education committees how he was repeatedly locked in a supply closet until he begged his parents not to send him back to school.

The General Assembly also passed the “Tim Tebow” bill, prohibiting local schools from joining the Virginia High School League unless they permit home-schooled students to participate in interscholastic activities. The VHSL is the principal sanctioning organization for interscholastic athletic competition among public high schools in the commonwealth of Virginia.

I have long opposed this bill since public school is not an a la carte menu from which families can pick and choose what activities to participate in. Public school students are required to meet certain academic requirements, schedules and disciplinary rules to participate in extracurricular activities, while home-schooled students do not. It is unfair to force these students to compete for the same limited number of slots when such activities are a privilege, not a right. The governor is likely to veto this bill.