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Virginia 6th Graders Don't Wilt Under Tough New Math Standards

Virginia is one of the few states not to sign on to the Common Core State Standards. But that doesn't mean its content standards, and its tests, won't get more difficult. In fact, the state just released the results of its "Standards of Learning" tests (the "college- and career-ready" standards that Virginia used to demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Education that it deserved a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act) for the 2011-12 school year.

I briefly touched on Virginia in a story I did a few months ago on plummeting scores on state accountability tests. But that segment only touched on the performance of students who took the new, tougher Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in high school mathematics during the first semester of the 2011-12 school year. Now, the results from all students and tests from 2011-12 are in.

Charles Pyle at the Virginia education department was kind enough to send me an Excel spreadsheet showing the changes. The pass rate in Algebra I dropped from 94 percent in 2010-11 to 75 percent this past year. The pass rate in Algebra II dropped slightly more, from 91 percent to to 69 percent, while in Geometry, the rate dipped from 87 percent to 74 percent. Those pass rates for all students are better than those from just the first-semester students, suggesting that teachers learned some SOL lessons from earlier in the year. In a statement, Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright said the scores were a "good start" and would provide a "solid foundation" for Virginia students going forward.

But there's one result on the math test that really catches your eye: Sixth graders' pass rate actually rose from 73 percent to 74 percent.

One reason why that might have occurred, Pyle said, is that since 2006, there has been a lot more professional development for middle-school math teachers, as well as more work between the department and schools on developing math resources. That work, however, doesn't necessarily explain why fellow middle-school students in the 7th and 8th grades statewide didn't have similar score gains, or at least less precipitous drops in scores.

Pyle also said the new 6th grade math standards incorporates more concepts previously reserved for 7th graders, such as order of operations. (You can read the changes in 6th grade standards on pages 11-13 of this document.) Of course, the tests for all grades got tougher in some fashion: The Standards of Learning in the 8th grade, for example, are now intended to prepare students to take Algebra I their freshman year in high school if they aren't already.

Among grades 3-8, the biggest drop in the pass rate took place in the 3rd grade, from 91 percent all the way down to 64 percent, although 7th graders had the lowest pass rate out of any of the grades, going from 77 percent to 58 percent.

The generic storyline when new and tougher standards are introduced is that scores slump sharply at first, then gradually rise back to more impressive levels as time goes on. But which states, if any, won't follow that neat script? Tougher standards in English and science are set to kick in this coming school year in Virginia.

Incidentally, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, began hosting a "K-12 Education Reform Summit" in Richmond on Aug. 15. The summit's participants including former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and other education luminaries. Easy conclusion: Get ready for a decent spate of notable education initiatives in the Virginia legislature in 2013.

To keep up with the latest state education news, make sure you follow State EdWatch's Twitter feed @StateEdWatch.

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