by Matt Hurt
For any organization to be successful, there must be clearly defined goals based on the desired outcome. The goals must be measurable, and the measure(s) of progress must also be defined. The greater the focus is maintained on those goals, the more likely the organization will attain them.
Virginia’s educators are at a disadvantage in that the goals (identified as priorities) laid out in the Board of Education’s Comprehensive Plan do not identify student outcome targets. The mission adopted by the Board (page 5) mentions the improvement of student achievement, but how much improvement is considered sufficient is not defined anywhere in the document. This document also does not specify any measures of student achievement that could be used to determine whether or not the board is accomplishing its mission.
The lack of adopted student outcome goals and measures could be a significant factor in the declines in student achievement in the past five or so years. Much has been written about the recent and significant decline in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in 2022, but student outcomes as measured by SOL tests were generally in decline prior to the pandemic. The only SOL scores that improved were in math, and then only because the Board of Education significantly lowered cut scores with the newest SOL test in 2019, which had the effect of making the new tests easier to pass.
There have been a number of decisions made by the Board in recent years that have been inconsistent with practices which improve student outcomes. These decisions in effect lowered the expectations for Virginia’s students and educators. Rarely do outcomes improve when expectations are lowered. For example, the degree to which student outcomes were calculated into teacher and administrator evaluations was decreased from 40 percent of the evaluation to no less than 10 percent in 2019. Also, that same year, the Board lowered the SOL cut scores in math, which effectively lowered the expectations in that subject. Two years later, the Board similarly lowered the cut scores in reading.
The Board’s current comprehensive plan ends this year, and it is assumed that this body will begin the process of drafting a new plan which will guide Virginia’s educational efforts over the next five years. If the Board truly desires to improve student outcomes, it is reasonable to assume that Board members will carefully consider what student outcome metrics capture the definition of student success, and will adopt measurable goals based on those metrics. This would help the Board to sharpen the focus on the specific desired outcome(s) and would ideally help Virginia’s educators to align efforts towards those measurable targets.
If the Board were to do this, an annual report could be provided which details the year-over-year performance of Virginia’s public school students, as well as multi-year trend data. This report could also track the likely effects of a number of factors that had either a positive or negative effect on student outcomes, including actions taken by the Board. This process would help the Board to refine policies and regulations that have an impact on student outcomes across the state annually.
While the General Assembly has the “ultimate authority” over the Board of Education, the annual report could also outline the relationships between the legislative body’s inputs into the educational system compared to student outcomes. For example, topics such as Standards of Quality funding, the Local Composite Index effect on local school funding, specific mandates codified into law, etc. could be correlated. This information could potentially spur action by the General Assembly in future sessions toward those factors that have a positive effect on student achievement. Similarly, this information could help reign in legislative action where it has demonstrated a negative effect.
Matt Hurt is the director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a consortium in which teachers and administrators from 49 public school divisions in Virginia collaborate to ensure better educational outcomes for their students.