House Republicans unveil education reforms

Published 10:41 am Saturday, January 10, 2015

BY Margo Maier
Capital News Service
Special to The Tidewater News

House Republican leaders outlined their K-12 education agenda for the 2015 General Assembly on Thursday, echoing several goals announced by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe a day earlier.

Both Democrats and Republicans support funding for training programs to improve school performance, expansion of expedited retakes of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests and guidelines for school accreditation ratings.

The Republican “Classroom Success” agenda, unveiled during a conference call with reporters, seeks to support schools, teachers and students by reforming outdated standards in testing and accreditation.

“Our SOL reform efforts last year brought about many needed changes,” said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, a retired teacher with more than 30 years of experience.

“In 2015, we will build on recent efforts to support our dedicated teachers by prioritizing professional development and providing a platform for teachers to share best practices across the commonwealth.”

Last year, Delegate Thomas A. “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun County, carried a bill to eliminate five SOL tests in grades three through eight. During the legislative session that begins Wednesday, he will sponsor additional reforms for Virginia’s education system. They focus on supporting teachers, reducing red tape and improving how student success is measured, Greason said.

GOP legislative leaders said they want to help teachers shift from teaching multiple-choice and rote memorization to critical thinking and problem solving. They said the proposed changes in student assessments would more accurately reflect students’ skill level and reduce the practice of “teaching to the test.”

Cox and his colleagues endorsed a testing strategy called interdisciplinary assessment.

The theory is that a highly structured SOL test focused on one subject, such as English, reading or math, might be a poor measure of the abilities of some students; however, students might score higher if the subjects were taught and tested more cohesively.

Reducing bureaucracy would hinge on the issue of standardized tests. Currently, schools are accredited every year, based largely on their test scores. Greason is proposing that consistently high-performing schools be eligible for waivers that would allow them to retain accreditation for up to five years.

He also proposed reforming the A-F letter-grade report cards that Virginia gives each school as a way for parents to gauge its performance. Greason wants to replace that system with a more complete way to measure the success of local schools while avoiding stigma and oversimplification.

Another measure awaiting action is House Bill 1490, sponsored by Delegate Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem. It addresses the expedited retakes of standardized tests in cases where students nearly passed.

“It is very possible for us now to allow students to retake these tests, and it has become so much easier because of the introduction of computer testing,” Greason said. “Where we used to spend more than $1 million dollars on standardized testing every year, we now spend around $200,000.”

Under the proposal, students would still have to take the failed test during the same school year.

Other education-related issues and bills touted by Republican leaders included:

• Protecting student privacy, as addressed by HB 1307 and HB 1334, introduced by Delegate Steve Landes, R-Verona.

• Expanding virtual schools, as addressed by HB 324 and HB 1361, sponsored by Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton.

• Establishing a uniform policy on college credit for AP courses, as addressed by Landes’ HB 1336.

On Wednesday, McAuliffe announced his legislative priorities for education. They included increasing access to school nutrition programs and allowing retired educators to teach in schools with teacher shortages without reducing their retirement benefits.