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The Republican heard ideas on the Standards of Learning tests and other issues.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
In a roundtable discussion with Roanoke Valley educators Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli expressed a desire to reform the state’s Standards of Learning tests and listened to suggestions for growth-based assessments.
Packed into a board room at a Roanoke law firm, educators and administrators crowded around a table and peppered the attorney general with thoughts on the state’s K-12 education standards, which have long been embodied by the multiple choice questions of the SOLs.
“I believe they need to be reformed,” Cuccinelli said to open the discussion. He said the tests, instated in the 1990s, were an important move forward at the time, but have had unintended consequences. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has also expressed an interest in changing the tests.
“Teaching to the test has become a problem, and I believe we’re losing the development of cognitive thinking and problem solving,” Cuccinelli said.
His education plan calls for a board of educators, administrators and students to discuss what is needed from the state’s education standards. The administrators and teachers at the table had already formed their answers to that question.
Roanoke County schools Superintendent Lorraine Lange brought along staffers who oversee the school system’s testing and finances. She and Ben Williams, the county’s assistant director for testing and remediation, told Cuccinelli the school system is boxed in.
“We’re ready to transcend the SOL system,” Williams said.
When Cuccinelli asked him to explain the phrase, Williams pointed to the “regurgitation” of information the SOLs require. He said schools should instead be instilling qualities of America’s “special sauce” — an ability to innovate.
Cuccinelli told the educators he hoped to provide more flexibility to local school systems. He hopes to change the way the state’s Standards of Quality dictate how funding is used at the local level.
“We don’t need to tell you, ‘You need a second librarian,’ if you need a physics teacher,” Cuccinelli said.
With general agreement in the room over the need for SOL reform, Salem Superintendent Alan Seibert presented Cuccinelli with a model for growth-based assessment, which would use multiple tests to track students’ knowledge and capabilities, showing the progress that has been made from the beginning of a school year to the end, and even across longer time frames.
Cuccinelli said he supported that method as a way to assess teachers’ performance.
Stephanie Doyle, a Roanoke teacher who won the state’s teacher of the year award in 2009, said some students may come to school hungry or reeling from problems at home. That, she said, gives single tests an unfair weight in the lives of students and teachers.
“The pressure that we feel trickles down to them,” Doyle said. “Take multiple measures at multiple times. We’re shortchanging our children because it’s a one-shot deal.”
McAuliffe, who met with Roanoke County officials in September, has put an emphasis on this point, according to his campaign.
“Terry’s plan includes allowing more flexibility on test timing and formats, so schools can have the choice to break the SOLs up into smaller portions and offer testing earlier in the year to measure progress, rather than one-time end of the year tests,” said Rachel Thomas, a campaign spokeswoman.
Later, a PTA representative from Roanoke County, Laura Bowman, spoke out against charter schools, which Cuccinelli has featured in his K-12 education plan.
He would establish a tax credit program or scholarship fund to aid children in failing schools that want to attend a charter school or private institution.
“I’ve never seen a school go from failing to succeeding in a year,” Cuccinelli said. “Those children don’t have time.”
The Republican said the logical default in that situation is to allow parents the option and information to make a decision on where their child should go to school. Cuccinelli hopes to amend the state constitution to allow state aid for private institutions through school choice programs. McAuliffe has expressed opposition to that measure, saying it would drain money from public schools.
Cuccinelli also supports legislation that would allow charter schools to be established without the approval of local school districts. There are currently no public charter schools operating in Southwest Virginia, and only six in the state.
“One of the elements of our expectations, for the plans we have, is when you create the avenue for other options to come into being, they come into being,” Cuccinelli said after the meeting. “That’s the way Americans respond. And in the rural areas, where it’s a thinner market — you just have less people — I expect to see smaller units that take advantage of this.”
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