2013 Winter Newsletter from Virginia Board of Education President Dave Foster

Virginia’s Schools Ranked 4th Best in U.S….

In its latest annual study of state school systems, “Quality Counts,” Education Week ranks Virginia’s educational system the fourth best in the United States. Maryland led with an overall “B-plus” while Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia followed closely with the nation’s only “B” grades.

The Old Dominion also gets strong reviews in the category of “teaching profession.” Teachers in Virginia must have substantial coursework and testing in the subjects they teach, are evaluated on the basis of student achievement, and have incentives to seek national board certification and to work in hard-to-staff areas. The report notes, however, that in Virginia as most states, teacher pay tends to lag behind pay in comparable occupations.

The Commonwealth received a “C” on overall “K-12 achievement,” which placed Virginia 8th nationally. Virginia’s comparatively strong performance on fourth and eighth grade math and reading tests, and its superior results in Advanced Placement testing, were offset by achievement gaps affecting students from low-income families. The Board’s comprehensive plan calls for renewed efforts to close such achievement gaps.

The study gave Virginia its lowest ranking in “school finance,” a category that looks at both equity in funding among school districts and overall financial support for education. Because the majority of elementary and secondary school expenditures are supported by local property taxes in Virginia, such expenditures vary significantly among local school systems. In addition, the study ranks Virginia in the bottom quarter of states for per-pupil spending and in state spending as a percent of taxable resources.
Some other factors examined by Education Week lie beyond the control of the school system. For example, Virginia benefits from relative high family incomes and from relatively low unemployment rates. On the other hand, we have a relatively high percentage of students whose parents are not fluent English speakers.

Since the Education Week study was released, Virginia received good news on another front. The first national study of vocabulary skills placed our students near the top. Based on an analysis of 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading tests, the U.S. Department of Education found that the Commonwealth’s fourth graders had stronger vocabulary skills than their peers in every state but one (Massachusetts). Our eighth graders ranked fourth nationally. Given the importance of early reading skills to later success, our educators, parents, and students should take pride in these encouraging results.

…But U.S. Still Lags Internationally

While Virginia’s public schools fare well in national rankings, the United States continues to lag internationally. The latest scores from recognized international tests in reading, math, and science show that U.S. students generally perform above the average but well behind students in other industrialized countries.

For example, the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, given to 15-year-olds around the world, produced U.S. reading scores that were just above the average and considerably below those of Korea, Singapore, Canada, Japan, China, Finland, and Australia. Our students scored right at the average on PISA’s science tests, again trailing students in a number of European and Asian countries. U.S. students scored below the average on PISA’s math scores, trailing peers in over 30 countries.

The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which focused on fourth- and eighth-grade students, yielded marginally better results. U.S. fourth-graders scored above the average in math (still trailing students in several nations), but the scores of U.S. eight-graders slipped almost to the average. Our fourth- graders performed well above average on the TIMSS science assessments, but by eighth grade U.S. results slid closer to the average and trailed those from Singapore, Japan, Korea, England, and a number of other countries.

What does this mean for Virginia? Some studies that try to compare U.S. tests with similar international tests show the Commonwealth ranking among the top twenty states in international competitiveness. The reality, however, is that we do not have reliable data by which to benchmark ourselves internationally. And being among the top twenty in the U.S. may leave us behind the curve when compared to the rest of the world. In an increasingly competitive global economy, we need to know more about how Virginia’s students perform on international tests if we are to prepare our graduates to succeed.

In light of these challenges, I am pleased that the Board’s new comprehensive plan declares: “Ensuring that Virginia’s accountability system sets benchmarks to gauge the academic achievement of Virginia’s students and schools compared to their peers across the state, the nation, and internationally is a top priority of the Board.” One of our strategies for doing this is to “identify cost-effective ways to measure Virginia students’ achievement on recognized international benchmarks.” The General Assembly’s Commission on Youth, which recently studied academic achievement in Virginia, also recognizes the importance of such information. The Commission’s report recommends that Virginia develop a plan to participate in the next TIMSS and/or PISA assessments as a separate “country” in order to obtain our students’ results. Some leading school systems, like those in Massachusetts and Minnesota, already participate in international testing on that basis.

My Board colleagues and I will soon be examining options for acquiring more information about our students’ performance on international tests. Whatever path we choose will have a cost, but failing to benchmark ourselves internationally will have an even higher cost. In the 21st century, we cannot be satisfied with having one of the best public school systems in the U.S. We need to have the best public school system in the world.

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