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Next week, more than 1.2 million Virginia students will head back to their classrooms. But as a new school year begins, they are not the only ones with schoolwork to do. Here's a pop quiz for policymakers that is much more than just an academic exercise.
Question 1: True or false—Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOLs) are fine just as they are.
Answer: True and false. It depends on whom you ask. Both Gov. McDonnell and the State Board of Education think the SOLs are just fine. The governor even said that they were "much superior" to the new Common Core standards that have been adopted by 33 states and the District of Columbia.
Virginia was among the first states to spell out clearly what students were expected to know and be able to do. There is no question that when the SOLs were adopted in 1995 (years before No Child Left Behind), they set a high goal.
But setting a goal is just a first step. Reaching the goal—and then staying there—are much tougher. (Ask anyone who has ever tried to lose weight and keep it off.)
So what is the right goal? Today, states can set their own level for what "good enough" means. If you're looking for a national standard, the closest anyone comes is the "proficient" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
And by that standard, Virginia students are frankly not making the grade. Although 87 percent of eighth-graders passed the SOL reading test, just 32 percent reached the NAEP proficient level. In math, 86 percent of eighth-graders passed the SOLs, but only 36 percent were at the NAEP proficient level. Scores for Virginia's African-American students are much worse, according to a recently released report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. At the eighth-grade level, just 15 percent of Virginia's black males reached the proficient level in math, and just 10 percent reached the proficient level in reading.
Question 2: True or false—Virginia's schools are still among the best in the world.
Answer: False. We shouldn't kid ourselves. The gap we see in national tests is mirrored in international assessments. Gary Phillips from the American Institutes for Research shared the results of a comparison between U.S. testing and a respected international test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) before a congressional committee last spring.
Here again, Virginia students didn't score well. Phillips noted that just 35 percent of our students would have been rated proficient using an international benchmark. As a result, he gave Virginia's standards a C-minus.
Question 3: True or false—the countries that are out-educating us today will out-compete us tomorrow.
Answer: True. The question, paraphrasing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, should be the one policymakers think about every day. The only way for Virginia (and the U.S.) to maintain a prosperous economy is to be sure everyone has the skills to be successful in an increasingly high-skill workplace.
Yet every year, 24 percent of Virginia's high school graduates arrive in college needing remedial classes. That means that these students—all of whom have passed their SOL exams and graduated—are nonetheless not ready to do college-level work.
Here's why that matters. A friend recently recounted a conversation he had with the head of a company that just moved manufacturing jobs out of Virginia. The executive explained the economic realities behind the move. Virginia workers were being paid between $12 and $15 an hour plus benefits. In China, the firm could pay one-tenth that amount; and in Vietnam, labor costs were only one-twentieth the rate paid to Virginia workers.
When Virginia loses low-skill jobs, they aren't coming back. Sadly, we should not be surprised if many more manufacturing and low-skill jobs are outsourced. The new high-skill workplace will require advanced education of some type—not necessarily a college degree, but a certificate, completion of an apprenticeship program, or a two-year degree.
So do the math. There's a 55 point gap between the SOL pass rates and the NAEP Proficient score in reading and a 50 point gap in math. On international math exams, only a third of our eighth-graders meet the world standard. And one-quarter of our students who graduate can't do the work required to be successful in college or the high-tech work force.
Virginia's students are heading back to school. But to address these pressing issues, it's Virginia's policymakers who clearly have some homework to do.