The Virginian-Pilot | Tony Suarez: Virginia’s education plan needs improvements

I LOVE VIRGINIA. It’s my home, and has been for the last 13 years. But like any state, it’s not perfect.

My three children all attend Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Through my involvement at their sporting events, PTA meetings and other school-sponsored activities, I’ve seen the challenges facing Virginia’s single-parent and lower-income students first hand. In fact, after my wife’s passing just over a year ago, I am now counted among the single-parent ranks and can attest that the challenges are extremely difficult for both the parent and the child to overcome.

As the father to three Hispanic children, I’ve also witnessed the uphill battle our inner-city and immigrant students struggle against. For most of these kids, education represents the first and best gateway to a better, brighter future. If our schools fail them, their lifetime prospects dim drastically.

As mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan bill passed during the Obama administration, Virginia recently submitted a state-level education plan to the U.S. Department of Education. While ESSA successfully increased statewide control over things such as educational metrics, testing, subject aptitude levels and benchmarks, as well as school district management, this increased freedom also means that each state is free to make its own, unique mistakes.

ESSA therefore requires that local citizens stay engaged in local education policy. Unfortunately for Virginians, an independent and bipartisan peer review of our state plan (published at uncovered some serious concerns about our schools’ transparency and accountability.

Virginia’s education plan calls for the use of a “combined rate” that merges academic proficiency with academic growth. More precisely, each school will have the goal of reaching 80 percent of students either at grade-level, or growing in proficiency. This is problematic for a variety of reasons.

Reporting that a school has an 80 percent combined rate doesn’t tell you whether that 80 percent is due to high rates of proficiency, high rates of growth, or a mix. A school of 100 students could get an 80 percent combined rate because 80 students were grade-level proficient or because 20 students were proficient and 60 achieved sufficient growth.

Those schools have dramatically different needs and strengths, but come out with the same result when the combined rate is measured. This is highly confusing for parents and the public alike, and most importantly, it inhibits Virginia’s own Department of Education from responding adequately to its students’ real needs.

Simultaneously, the submitted plan doesn’t properly incentivize schools and school districts to focus on proficiency and growth. Virginia is only measuring the growth of a subset of students — those who are not proficient. All students should be expected to make progress every year, even if they are already at grade level. This weakens the incentive for schools to focus on a student’s continued academic progress toward college and career readiness.

Finally, the plan also lets schools off the hook for English learners’ academic achievement and academic growth in English language arts. So long as ELs make some progress in their English language proficiency, schools have no accountability for whether or not ELs are mastering academic content more broadly.

These types of misguided accountability metrics do Virginia’s students a disservice by masking the truth of how well — or how poorly — our students are performing. It’s impossible to set real goals if our metrics mask inadequacies.

Our children deserve better.

As Virginians, we are all stakeholders in the future of our state, which is directly tied to the quality of our schools. Virginia’s state education plan hasn’t been approved yet, but it likely will be. The good news is that there is still time to make a difference. There are a lot of decisions to be made during implementation, so it’s worth letting state administrators know our thoughts by writing letters and emails, or by picking up the phone and calling the Virginia Department of Education.

Let’s raise our collective voices and demand more common-sense, transparent reporting for Virginia’s students.

The Rev. Tony Suarez is executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has more than 40,000 certified member churches in the United States and chapters in Latin America. He lives in Virginia Beach.

Read more at Tony Suarez: Virginia’s education plan needs improvements.