Report on Virginia public education standards and policies overdue
Over a four-month period in 2022, Virginia leaders in education and workforce development held a series of meetings to provide recommendations to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration on improving state K-12 education.
However, a report on recommendations from those meetings, which were convened to fulfill the requirements of a 2022 law known as House Bill 938, remains six months overdue, with no explanation for its delay.
Asked about the report last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office did not provide an update on its status or why it hasn’t been released. A follow-up request in May went unanswered.
“The administration values the input from public school principals, school superintendents, school board members, and school teachers received both through the [House Bill] 938 workgroup and other feedback opportunities,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter in an April email. “We continue to incorporate this feedback into the policies and actions needed to restore excellence to education and ensure our schools are serving every child. A detailed review of the policies and actions implemented over the last year and the Department’s policy recommendations will be outlined in the report.”
House Bill 938, which passed the General Assembly last year, required the Board of Education, Secretary of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a group of stakeholders to evaluate various state policies and performance standards for public education.
Among the goals the group was tasked with evaluating were “promoting excellence in instruction and student achievement in mathematics,” expanding the availability of the Advanced Studies diploma, “increasing the transparency of performance measures” and ensuring those measures “prioritize the attainment of grade-level proficiency and growth” in K-5 reading and math, and “ensuring a strong accreditation system that promotes meaningful accountability year-over-year.”
A report on the group’s findings and recommendations was due to the House and Senate education committees by Nov. 30, 2022.
During a Feb. 2, 2022 hearing, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera called the legislation an opportunity for Virginia to develop a strategic plan to ensure public school students are prepared for life and the demands of the future.
“There are a lot of signs that we don’t have that, and that means taking a review of our standards, our curriculum, our assessments to make sure they are best in class and our proficiency levels are aligned with what the economy and democracy requires, and also our accountability system is aligned to make sure that we are holding systems accountable for serving every single child in Virginia,” Guidera said.
During the same hearing, Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who carried the bill, said the legislation was “part of the governor’s ‘Day 1 Plan’ to empower parents” and a “mission statement as to where we want to take our education system.” She did not respond to interview requests.
Fifteen teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, school board members and higher education and business experts were convened by the administration for the work group, which met at least four times before concluding its work in November, according to an October 19 report to the Board of Education. The group was also broken into four smaller groups that focused on “Mathematics Excellence and Achievement,” “Advanced Studies Diploma Options,” “Academic Growth and Assessment” and “School Accreditation and Data Transparency.”
Each topic group met individually and was assisted by members of the Department of Education and the Region 5 Comprehensive Center, which provides assistance to states on education and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
According to a Nov. 3 draft provided to the Mercury, some of the work group’s recommendations included providing additional funding for elementary and middle school math specialists, revising state accreditation profiles to make them more accessible and improving communication about how both learning growth and proficiency contribute to school performance scores.
Members who spoke with the Mercury said they were uncertain of whether there was any opposition to the recommendations after they were submitted.
“The timeframe for the HB 938 group was fairly limited, and so we could only accomplish so much,” said Kimberly Bridges, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the work group. “But I think there were folks at that table who were more than willing to keep working if the state had asked. But again, it just kind of ended, the report was drafted and the folks on the working group did what they were there to do.”
A timely report
Members of the work group said the report is particularly timely given that the Board of Education is currently considering new accountability and accreditation systems.
In May 2022, the Youngkin administration released a report calling for “a new path” for Virginia education after student proficiency ratings and test scores on state and national assessments dropped following the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has blamed changes to school accreditation standards made by prior Democratic-controlled Boards of Education for the declines and most recently has proposed changes to how the state scores its schools.
At the same time, the administration has pushed for state education to focus more on workforce readiness, with Youngkin calling for every high school student in Virginia to graduate with “an industry-recognized credential.”
Courtney Baker, director of workforce and training for the Associated General Contractors of Virginia, who served on the Mathematics Excellence and Achievement topic group, said one of its recommendations was for Virginia to focus more on applied mathematics associated with careers such as architecture and engineering, instead of the “standard fast-paced, credit-driven approach.”
Additionally, the group recommended allowing students enrolled in career and technical education courses to qualify for Advanced Studies diplomas. Similar efforts to expand career and technical education in Virginia through legislation failed during the last General Assembly session.
Baker said Virginia is “plagued” by a workforce shortage, pointing to estimates from construction industry groups that more than 250,000 craft professionals will be needed in Virginia by 2026.
“While we continue to hear how important the trades are to the health of Virginia’s economy, we do not see that reflected in current policy,” Baker said. “Students cannot pursue CTE training and qualify for prestigious advanced diplomas, CTE classrooms are in need of additional funding, and we have CTE instructors who are retiring and not being replaced.”
Proficiency vs. growth
Educators and lawmakers have debated for years how student success should be measured and whether assessments of school performance should focus more on student proficiency, as measured on state exams, or evidence of growth in test results.
The Youngkin administration has argued for a greater emphasis on proficiency, saying that the inclusion of growth factors in school accreditation rankings has masked deficiencies in performance.
Officials were especially skeptical of the state’s most recent accreditation results, which showed only a few schools fell short of full accreditation despite student declines on standardized tests. Specifically, the number of fully accredited schools dropped from 92% from the 2019-20 school year to 89% for the 2022-23 year.
“This broken accountability system fails to provide a clear picture of the academic achievement and progress of our schools to parents, teachers, and local school divisions,” Youngkin said at the time. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow similarly said the school ratings “fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students.”
Both Balow and former Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who chaired the House Education Committee, told the Washington Post that school accreditation rankings shouldn’t lump together proficiency and growth.
However, many education experts argue both factors are important in determining school success — a conclusion supported by the HB 938 work group, which in its Nov. 3 document stated that “focusing on both proficiency and growth provides an accurate depiction of how schools are performing.”
“The board should ensure that growth and proficiency continue to be included in one combined rate and increased parent-friendly communication surrounding its meaning would promote transparency,” the document says.
Members of the work group recommended the Board of Education “consider a weighted balance” of the two and conduct further investigation on the issue.
“We need accountability that looks at both student growth and students reaching proficiency. If you want to get a holistic picture of what’s happening with learning in schools,” Bridges said. “If you’re only looking at proficiency, particularly after coming out of this pandemic, and all of the impacts that it’s had on kids and their learning … then you’re only getting a piece of the larger picture.”
Members of the work group said they hope the report will be prepared and included as part of the board’s discussions.
Rodney Jordan, a former president of the Virginia School Boards Association who served on the work group, said Virginia has had a long history of educational excellence, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges students face.
I don’t want to see the pandemic used as an excuse for allowing opportunity gaps, lack of support for teachers, and ill-defined student outcome goals to persist; I want to see those things lessened, frankly deliberately eliminated,” Jordan said.
However, he continued, education leaders must “acknowledg[e] that where students start and where students end can vary from school to school and community to community, and we have to find ways of accelerating academic excellence for all of our children while also finding ways to continue to … raise the bar and ceiling simultaneously.”