Monticello High School parent David Blaine called it “the race to the middle.”
At a community conversation with Albemarle School Board Member Ned Gallaway Thursday, Blaine and others criticized the division for what they see as a lack of academic rigor, and inconsistency in course offerings in the middle schools.
“We are foregoing what the top tier of kids could be doing,” Blaine said. “Their needs are not being met, and that is a vastly expensive cost.”
Monticello High School parent Jim Stern, whose daughter is enrolled in the state-mandated Personal Finance course, said that the course’s ease reflects a larger problem Albemarle is having with rigor in their classes.
Stern said that his son went to college knowing little about personal finance, so he thought that this course would benefit his daughter. However, Stern said, the class sets the bar “to the lowest common denominator.”
“She’s had to write poems about spending and poems about saving,” Stern said. “We’ve dumbed down the finance class to make it easy, but it’s not the finance they need to know.”
“It’s a microcosm of the bigger picture,” Stern added. “We’ve dumbed it down.”
Blaine said his daughter is similarly frustrated.
“My daughter is in a 10th grade advanced honors English class where they’re talking about ‘the writing rocket’ [diagram],” Blaine said. “There is nothing advanced. There is nothing honors.”
Blaine also said that the pace at which the courses are moving is too slow.
“We’re moments away from being 9 weeks into the school year and they are making it through a 90-page novella,” Blaine added. “And here’s an advanced-level honors course that’s getting [weighted] a 5.0.”
Gallaway said that two methods a School Board member has to affect change are the division’s Programs of Study document, and setting priorities at the Board’s yearly retreat.
Gallaway said the division has improved the high school programs of study recently, and thinks the Board’s desire to replace the Standards of Learning exams will help improve rigor in the classroom.
“We need a different type of education happening in our classrooms, and our teachers need to feel confident that they’re not restricted by that,” Gallaway said. “This year one of the goals in the Board-level re-writing [of the Strategic Plan] was a goal that says we’re going to try to get a waiver from the state from Standards of Learning testing because we think the assessments that we give [are better].”
For the last 2 years, Albemarle has piloted the College and Workforce Readiness Assessment, which is a task-based exam designed to test critical and analytical thinking skills. Each year, high school students and college freshman from around the country take the test.
Last year’s results showed that while Albemarle’s students scored higher than most college freshman, they didn’t perform as well on the critical thinking as they were academically prepared for.
School Board Chair Steve Koleszar said that the CWRA will support this increase in rigor parents are calling for.
“What we also found was that our scores were not as high as the other highly-competitive high schools that we were comparing ourselves to,” Koleszar said.
“This is a case of using assessment to drive more rigor to lay down to our teachers and our staff and say we want to go to the next level,” Koleszar added. “We don’t want to compare ourselves to just Virginia and SOL test scores, we want to compare ourselves to the best in the country.”
In addition to high school concerns, other parents criticized the lack of consistent elective offerings throughout the County’s 5 middle schools.
“Why were we not given a foreign language last year, and meanwhile my kid can go up to Sutherland and have German 1 and honors choir and all of these different course structures?” Morris asked.
Revisiting the division’s middle school programs of study, Gallaway said, will allow the Board to ensure elective offerings are fairly distributed, and that he suspects the process will start soon.
Albemarle Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun said that any differences in offerings between schools are due to enrollment and teaching availability.
“At the two extremes you have Henley at 800 and Walton at 300-50, so it’s going to be hard to match all schools elective-for-elective,” Haun said. “If you’re going to teach guitar, you need to have someone who has the skill to be able to do that. If we had a middle school that wanted Latin, they’d have to find the teacher who could do that, and have enough students to run the class.”
Gallaway said that even though parents addressed specific issues, he thinks the Board’s focus is appropriate.
“When you hear people talk about rigor, that’s what we’ve been talking about,” Gallaway said. “Our work sessions are designed around that, and rigor is discussed a lot.”
Despite that, Gallaway thinks the Board could do more to address the consistency of opportunities.
Gallaway, the board’s one at-large member, plans to hold another community conversation with constituents in November.