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Virginia seeks halt to testing benchmarks

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If Virginia gets its way, the requirement that pass rates on state tests increase each year will screech to a near halt.

A centerpiece of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation is that all schools will need to reach 100 percent proficiency on state tests by 2014. Virginia has required increases of a few percentage points annually or biennially for schools to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward that mandate.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to No Child Left Behind” in Congress this year, said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. “What we’re asking for is an interim benchmark for AYP until we know.” The U.S. Department of Education is angling for major changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during its reauthorization process this year. No Child Left Behind is the latest version of that law.

Virginia would freeze its AYP targets at a pass rate of 79 percent in math and 81 percent in English for 2010, according to an application to the federal Department of Education approved last week by the state Board of Education. Targets for future years would be decided at a later date.

The only difference from 2009 would be that schools falling just short of pass rates, such as 80.8 percent in English, could no longer round up to pass. The state would, however, continue to allow schools with lower pass rates to make adequate yearly progress if they cut failure rates by at least 10 percent.

Educators say the state is finally recognizing the reality that improving student performance doesn’t happen overnight. Many feel there should be a middle ground between not expecting students to get any better and getting them to be perfect.

The board of education also asked for permission to continue allowing schools with lagging special education pass rates to add on about 13 to 14 percentage points to reach required pass rates. In the past, this waiver has been approved to recognize that the state doesn’t yet have an appropriate grade-level test for all special education students.

New standards for English and science classes were also approved by the board last Tuesday. The English standards add a media literacy strand and require some research as early as fourth grade, but will keep sentence diagramming and requirements that students use “grammatically correct” language. The science standards add nanotechnology to physics, but not to chemistry classes, and restore organic chemistry to the curriculum.