Governor Youngkin’s Bracing Embrace of K–12 Candor

The soft bigotry of low expectations is back in progressive education circles. Last summer, Oregon dropped the requirement that high school graduates demonstrate an ability to read, write, and do math at a high school level. California’s Instructional Quality Commission has urged schools to eliminate accelerated math programs in the name of equity. San Diego has decided that students need no longer submit homework on time and that classroom misbehavior will no longer affect student grades. Meanwhile, teacher unions want states to ditch their tests, and Biden Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has implied that those tests are really just a tool of nefarious right-wingers.

This era of low expectations and contempt for candor is what makes especially refreshing Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s decision last week to embrace high standards and transparency. In an extensive report/manifesto issued in answer to Youngkin’s first executive order, the Virginia Department of Education last week unflinchingly described the low standards and mediocre academic achievement that plague a state known for its high opinion of its schools.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S., November 3, 2021. REUTERS/ Elizabeth Frantz

This confidence is clearly misplaced, as Virginia has been inflating apparent student performance by systematically lowering the standards students have to meet. In 2017, the State Board of Education altered its accreditation requirements so as to de-emphasize proficiency in reading and math. In 2019 and 2020, the state reduced the cut scores (the level at which students are deemed proficient) in both reading and math on state tests.

Given the watered-down benchmarks, it’s no surprise that Virginia has reported huge majorities of Virginia students were doing well. In 2019, for instance, Virginia reported that three-quarters of fourth- and eighth-grade students were proficient in reading. But those numbers are little more than a case of Youngkin’s predecessors cooking the books. Indeed, on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”), a national test not subject to the machinations of state officials, only about one-third of Virginia fourth- and eighth-graders were proficient in reading. The results weren’t much better in math: Less than half of Virginia public high school seniors who took the SAT demonstrated college readiness.

In response, Youngkin’s administration is pledging to get serious about making sure parents, educators, and taxpayers are getting an honest account of how students are faring. For starters, Youngkin calls for raising cut scores back to a more meaningful place and boosting the rigor of the state assessment. Youngkin also sketches out several additional measures, such as creating individualized reading plans for K–2 students who are struggling with literacy, annually reviewing content standards, and expanding educational choice.

While this all makes sense in principle, we’ll see how well Youngkin’s team manages in practice. But in an era when academic excellence has too often been on the defensive, it’s heartening to see state leaders embrace rigorous expectations and an honest accounting. When the push for education accountability caught fire in the 1990s, it wasn’t about the testing mania and bureaucratic micro-management that became so pervasive with time. It wasn’t about laws and compliance but embracing candor. The point was that students deserve rigorous schools and that parents, educators, and taxpayers deserve a candid assessment of how students were faring. The Youngkin report is a bracing callback to that era of proactive transparency. It’s a welcome sign and a model worth emulating.

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Governor Youngkin’s Bracing Embrace of K–12 Candor