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Governor: Education, SOL changes top priority

© Leesburg Today - 09/23/2015

Gov. Terry McAuliffe said public education will be the ""top priority"" of his first biennial state budget and that he's considering further changes to Virginia's Standards of Learning tests, which he says are partly to blame for sapping creativity from classrooms across the commonwealth.

McAuliffe said it's too soon to talk specifics about the new budget, which he will release in December. But he said he understands the challenges facing Virginia's public school divisions and its teachers, some of whom are leaving the profession.

Prince William County hired about 750 teachers this school year to replace those who left the school division last spring.

""You say you lost 700 teachers? I understand that,"" McAuliffe said in response to a reporter's question. McAuliffe said teachers were ""long overdue"" for the modest pay raise they received this year and said he knows teaching has become more difficult in recent years.

""[Teachers] want to be able to see that lightbulb go off in the students they're teaching,"" he said. ""But if they're teaching to the test, and teaching memorization, they've lost [the ability to foster] the creativity, the cognitive reasoning. So we need to put that back in the classrooms. …. And we know we have to spend money to do it.""

Lagging state funding for public kindergarten through 12th-grade education and additional changes to the state's SOL regimen were among the topics McAuliffe discussed Tuesday after conducting an hour-long roundtable meeting with parents of students in Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William, Loudoun, Culpeper and Arlington county public schools held at Osbourn High School.

The stop in Manassas was the fifth on the statewide ""listening tour"" that McAuliffe's and Virginia Education Secretary Anne Holton are conducting to gather ideas from teachers, administrators, students and parents about the challenges facing Virginia's 1,860 public schools.

McAuliffe said he's ""open to anything that will improve our schools,"" including further reducing the 29-test SOL schedule and granting waivers from state's ""Kings Dominion Law,"" which dictates that public schools start after Labor Day to ensure a long and lucrative summer season for tourist attractions such as Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and King's Dominion.

Prince William and Loudoun school divisions, began the year before Labor Day because of waivers granted due to excessive snow-day cancellations last year.

Holton said some school divisions are starting early to boost student achievement, which is also allowed under the law.

Regarding SOLs, McAuliffe noted that the state recently reduced the total number of tests from 34 to 29 by cutting some science, social studies and writing tests, but added: ""I still think there's too many. I still think they're too long for some of our younger students. So we're going to look at them.""

McAuliffe praised a recent change that allows students who just missed passing scores to retake SOL tests, which he said boosted school passing rates and helped students. Passing the SOL tests is particularly important for high school students because they must pass at least nine SOL tests to graduate.

The change came from Holton's SOL Innovation Commission, which was launched last year and continues to meet to make suggestions about SOL reforms.

About 200 people attended the roundtable discussion, during which Holton and McAuliffe asked parents for suggestions about how schools can foster more creativity; whether class sizes are manageable; and whether they think schools are effectively training students for 21st century jobs.

Parents talked about the importance of smaller classes and programs that encourage students to think creatively and work collaboratively.

""The creative programs, they should always be part of our education system,"" said Manassas parent Christine Spratley. ""We have fabulous teachers in the city of Manassas and they work very hard. But they are overwhelmed and overburdened. And my bottom line would be, let's look at removing the SOLs from our schools,"" she said to loud applause.

Lisa Sockett, a parent from Arlington County, said she's not against all testing but urged more flexibility and creativity to allow teachers to balance test preparation with more engaging instruction.

""We shouldn't straitjacket ourselves,"" she added. ""We need to make sure our children are learning what they're supposed to be learning without having [the testing] pulling us down from the kind of great education that we know our teachers are able to give to our kids.""

McAuliffe said he appreciates hearing from ""folks on the ground,"" and that Holton and State Superintendent Steven Staples will give their ideas serious consideration.

""If you know anything about the three of us, we're for shaking it up and doing the right thing,"" he added. ""People should take heart that we're taking their suggestions back and we're acting on them.""

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