Disturbing trend continues

Published 11:26 am Saturday, September 1, 2012

Much has been made by the education establishment about tougher math standards on the standardized tests that students in Virginia public schools took this spring.

Math scores were down sharply locally and throughout the state because the questions were harder.

We get it.

In Franklin, the hullabaloo over math scores distracted from a much more serious problem: continuing declines in reading and writing, the two most important skills a student needs to succeed in the workplace.

It’s hard to fathom that Standards of Learning scores could get any worse in Franklin Public Schools, which last year ranked next-to-last statewide in an averaging of SOL pass rates for all subjects and grade levels.

They got worse.

At every grade level, the reading pass rate was down from the year before.

Less than 70 percent of Franklin third-, fourth- and fifth-graders passed the SOL reading test. By comparison, nearly 90 percent of students in those grades statewide passed the test. In neighboring Isle of Wight County, with which Franklin competes for families and jobs, better than 90 percent in those grades tested adequately in reading.

Just 62 percent of Franklin fifth-graders passed the SOL writing test, compared with 89 percent in Southampton and Isle of Wight counties and 87 percent statewide. The 62 percent in Franklin was down from 69 percent the year prior.

No one expects miracles from Franklin Public Schools and the people running them. They’ve been dealt a tough hand. A disproportionate number of Franklin students live in poverty and get little academic support at home. They come to school unprepared to learn. It is unreasonable in such circumstances to expect Franklin SOL scores to be among the state’s best.

It is reasonable, however, to expect improvement from the pitiful depths to which academic performance has plummeted.

Improvement is the fundamental challenge for Dr. Michelle Belle, the Franklin superintendent who was hired in 2009 to reverse the course of the city’s schools. Instead, as she begins her fourth year, the decline continues.

The patience of taxpayers is wearing thin, and stakeholders are asking legitimate questions about the effectiveness of leadership in the city schools.

In nearby Petersburg, the only school division in the state with a lower average SOL pass rate than Franklin in 2011, reading pass rates rose this year in every grade but one. No single grade level had a pass rate below 70.

Petersburg is proof that improvement is possible, even in a city with high poverty.

If Petersburg can make modest progress, surely can Franklin.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.