RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to change how school performance is measured in Virginia was met with skepticism in a recent Board of Education meeting. Several members voiced concerns about speeding up the timeline for a plan that still lacks specifics.
Last month, Youngkin announced seven steps to address what he called “catastrophic” test scores, including overhauling the state’s school accreditation and accountability system. He accused previous board members of lowering standards of accreditation.
“So far that they have become essentially meaningless,” Youngkin said during an Oct. 24 press conference. “When you water down expectations, when you, in fact, tell people things that aren’t true, when you expect less of our kids than what they are capable of doing, you get worse outcomes.”
During an interview last month, State Superintendent Jillian Balow said the Board of Education would take urgent action.
“We’re going to fast track the fast track,” Balow said. “It needs to be done immediately.”
But the Youngkin administration hit a roadblock last week when they asked the board to request emergency powers that would trigger an expedited reform process.
“So that rules can be implemented sooner while still going through all of the public scrutiny and the entire process that regular rule-making goes through,” Balow said. “We would like to see it be in place in schools next fall and the only way to do that is with emergency rule-making.”
The board directed Balow to bring back more detailed proposed regulations and, at least for now, rejected her request for emergency authority. Daniel Gecker, the board’s president, said the issue can be revisited once they have more information.
Dr. Alan Seibert, a Youngkin appointee on the board said, “This gives me heartburn because anything worth doing is worth doing right and doing something like this fast is a fraught proposition.”
Delegate Rodney Willett (D-Henrico) said an expedited rule-making process would limit important public input.
“It’s super important to have involvement from folks who are familiar with the school systems, education experts and others. Why you would exclude that input is beyond me,” Willett said.
Youngkin’s administration wants to create separate processes for accreditation, which would focus on school compliance, and accountability, which would measure school performance based on student outcomes.
Balow said the goal is to create a more transparent accountability system that paints a clearer picture of which schools are struggling. She said that will allow parents to better gauge school effectiveness and take action.
For the 2022-2023 school year, 89% of Virginia schools earned full accreditation, a three-point drop compared with pre-pandemic performance. In a statement in September, Youngkin said those ratings call into question the effectiveness of current accreditation standards, considering the significant declines in student achievement that occurred during that time.
“We do have an educational emergency on our hands right now. With our NAEP scores, we have had the steepest decline of fourth-grade reading in the nation since 2017 and 2019. In math, we have the steepest declines in fourth-grade math from 2017 to today,” Balow told the board.
In a presentation to the board last Wednesday, All4Ed’s Director of Policy Development Anne Hyslop said Virginia’s current system “does a poor job at differentiating between schools” compared to other states.
But Anne Holton, a member of the board reappointed by former governor, Ralph Northam, said it’s still not clear what exactly the Youngkin administration wants to change, what alternative approach they would embrace and how resources would be aligned to support struggling schools.
“I don’t have any concept of what that transparent system of accountability that you want to embark on is and, until I understand that better, I don’t know how to go forward on any of this,” Holton said.
Seibert also pushed back on the notion that the current system is not transparent.
“It is transparent. It’s just complex and it is complex on purpose because…we wanted to honor the complexity of the profession,” Seibert said.
Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) raised concerns about potentially adopting a system that uses A-F letter grades to rate schools. He said that approach has been rejected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the past. It’s one of several models that are under consideration, according to Balow.
“There is no emergency in our accreditation system,” Surovell said. “Giving schools a bunch of grades and making certain schools radioactive isn’t going to do anything to solve the problem … All it’s going to do is cause people to flee the schools.”