RICHMOND, Va. — Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli proposed expansive changes to make Virginia’s 20-year-old Standards of Learning student testing regimen more geared to problem-solving and less dependent on memorization. He also wants to make it easier for students in failing schools to attend charter schools, private schools or better-performing public schools.
What Cuccinelli lacked, however, in rolling out his education reform proposals at a model public school Tuesday in Richmond, was a definitive price tag for the package he would submit to the General Assembly if he wins the Nov. 5 election.
Cuccinelli, a champion of public-private charter schools, private schools and also home schoolers, is in accord on testing with Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic rival in the heated, nationally watched race to succeed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. The governor is finishing his single, nonrenewable four-year term under the cloud of a scandal over undisclosed gifts.
McAuliffe noted similar testing reform ideas in early May.
Standards of Learning testing for public school students has changed little since they were set as an accountability tool for both students and school systems under former Gov. George Allen in the early 1990s. The proposals of both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe reflect frustrations among educators and parents who say that preparing students for the tests is little more than an exercise in short-term rote memorization.
Of the criticisms of the test, Cuccinelli said during his policy rollout to a handful of students at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, “the most commonly known is teaching to the test.” But changes, he said, would be vetted in a one-year study by a commission comprised of teachers, parents, legislators, college faculty and others, who would render their recommendations in November 2012.
He said he isn’t arguing that testing should be scrapped, contending instead that he favors “an evolution” in the way Virginia approaches standardized school testing.
Among his recommendations are allowing for the different ways that children learn, stressing competency and “cognitive based education” and problem-solving ability and developing adaptive computer tests or assembling a large bank of test questions to afford more leeway in the testing calendar and in giving the tests.
The tests have been at the heart of public education in Virginia since the early 90s because they are not only a critical factor in student advancement, they also are used to assess the performance of school districts and to target those in need of remedial action or — under another Cuccinelli proposal — possible closure.
One option under Cuccinelli’s plan for chronically failing schools include converting them into charter schools, which receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate more like private schools under certain less restrictive rules. Others include “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to enroll their children in better public school systems rather than being tied because of residency to a failing district, or tax credits that would help parents afford private school tuition.
Democrats pounced on the latter option, saying it robs public schools of scarce funding and gives it to private schools.
“There is some option there to include private schools as an option for parents, but that is only a relatively small slice of the whole pie that we laid out today,” Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli’s plan also advocates an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to remove its prohibition against government aid to religious schools, something Cuccinelli — who is Roman Catholic — ascribed to “anti-Catholic bigotry in American politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Legislation that could have put such an amendment on the statewide ballot as soon as November 2014 failed by one vote this year in the Senate.
Other features of Cuccinelli’s plan calls for bolstered science, technical, engineering and math curricula and for expanded funding for online teaching through “virtual classrooms.”
He noted that costs for the changes to the SOL tests would involve little actual expense, and he said that any classroom cost increases could be offset by paring administrative budgets.
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