Board of Education rejects emergency timetable for school accountability reform in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to change the way Virginia measures school achievement was met with skepticism at a recent Board of Education meeting. Several members expressed concerns about speeding up the timetable for a plan that still lacks details.

Last month, Youngkin announced seven steps to address what he described as “catastrophic” test scores, including overhauling the state’s school admissions and accountability system. He accused former board members of lowering standards of accreditation.

“To the point that they’ve essentially become meaningless,” Youngkin said during an Oct. 24 news conference. “If you water down expectations, if you actually tell people things that aren’t true, if you expect less of our children than they can, you get worse results.”

During an interview last month, State Superintendent Jillian Balow said the Board of Education would take urgent action.

“We’re going to accelerate the fast lane,” Balow said. “It must be done immediately.”

But the Youngkin administration hit a roadblock last week when it asked the board to seek emergency powers that would trigger an accelerated reform process.

“To allow rules to be implemented sooner while still going through all the public scrutiny and the whole process that regular rulemaking goes through,” Balow said. “We want it to be rolled out in schools next fall and the only way to do that is to create emergency rules.”

The board directed Balow to bring back more detailed regulatory proposals and denied her request for emergency powers, at least for now. Daniel Gecker, the president of the board, said the issue could be revisited as more information becomes available.

dr Alan Seibert, a Youngkin board officer, said: “This gives me heartburn because anything worth doing is worth doing right and it’s a difficult thing to do quickly do.”

Delegate Rodney Willett (D-Henrico) said an expedited rulemaking process would limit important public input.

“The involvement of people familiar with the school systems, education professionals and others is extremely important. Why you would disqualify this post is beyond me,” Willett said.

Youngkin’s administration wants to create separate processes for accreditation that would focus on school compliance and accountability, which would measure school performance based on student outcomes.

Balow said the goal is to create a more transparent accountability system that paints a clearer picture of which schools are struggling. She said this will allow parents to better assess the school’s effectiveness and take action.

For the 2022-2023 school year, 89% of Virginia schools received full accreditation, down three points from pre-pandemic performance. In a statement in September, Youngkin said these assessments call into question the effectiveness of current accreditation standards, given that student performance has declined significantly over this period.

“We’re facing an education crisis right now. With our NAEP scores, we have the largest decline in fourth grade reading nationwide since 2017 and 2019. In math, we have the sharpest decline in fourth grade from 2017 to date,” Balow told the board.

In a presentation to the board last Wednesday, Anne Hyslop, director of policy development at All4Ed, said Virginia’s current system “does a poor job of distinguishing between schools” compared to other states.

But Anne Holton, a board member reappointed by former Gov. Ralph Northam, said it was still not clear what exactly the Youngkin administration wanted to change, what alternative approach it would take and how resources would be targeted to support struggling schools.

“I have no idea what this transparent system of accountability you’re trying to get into is, and until I understand that better, I don’t know how to proceed with it,” Holton said.

Seibert also pushed back on the notion that the current system is not transparent.

“It’s transparent. It’s just complex, and it’s intentionally complex because … we wanted to honor the complexity of the profession,” Seibert said.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) raised concerns about the possible introduction of a system that uses AF letter grades to rate schools. He said this approach has historically been opposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. According to Balow, it’s one of several models being considered.

“There is no emergency in our accreditation system,” Surovell said. “Giving schools a few grades and making certain schools radioactive will do nothing to solve the problem… It will only cause people to flee schools.”