- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

RICHMOND During the past eight years, Jo Lynne DeMary has been instrumental in developing and implementing the state's standards of learning tests first as assistant superintendent of public instruction, then as superintendent.
During that time, the public school accountability program has been a work in progress, with adjustments made to address criticism that the standards put too much emphasis on rote memorization and test-taking skills.
As students prepare for the start of the academic year, Miss DeMary is satisfied that the state Board of Education has tinkered with the program enough. It's time to get down to the business of making it work, she said.
"I think we've reached our limit, quite honestly," Miss DeMary said when asked whether more revisions are needed. "I would be disappointed and alarmed if the board kept making adjustments. I can't imagine anything else we should do to make sure we've addressed the concerns."
Starting with the class of 2004, high school students must earn two verified credits in English and four in subjects of their choice to earn a standard diploma. A verified credit is awarded when a student passes a high school course and its related standards test or an approved alternative exam.
Beginning in 2007, students will have to pass two tests in English and one each in math, science, history and a course of the student's choice. Also starting that year, schools with less than a 70 percent passing rate will lose state accreditation.
Changes made by the board include adopting a long list of alternative exams that can be taken instead of the standards tests and relaxing test-score requirements for the first three classes graduating under the program.
"The substitute tests took away the idea that one test could keep a student from graduating," Miss DeMary said. "Now we need to make sure every child knows how to access the program's flexibility."
Miss DeMary was appointed superintendent by former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, and was reappointed in April by Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner. She said she sees no evidence that Mr. Warner wants to back away from the standards.
"I would be very disappointed as superintendent if we were asked to start undoing what has been done," Miss DeMary said. "We need to have stability."
Last month, Mr. Warner announced a $3 million program to send educators and volunteers into the worst-performing schools to help them meet the new accreditation standards. Miss DeMary said the program enhances the accountability program.
Since the standards tests were first administered in 1998, scores have steadily improved. The next statewide scores for the 28 tests are expected to be released within a few weeks.
"I don't know what last spring's tests will look like, but I would be extremely disappointed if we don't continue to make good progress," Miss DeMary said.
As scores have improved and adjustments in the program have been made, criticism of the standards has waned. The tests were "demystified" after education officials decided to release them to the public, Miss DeMary said.
Developing the standards is not the only challenge facing public elementary and secondary education, Miss DeMary said. Virginia schools are also losing teachers to states that pay higher salaries.
"How do we not just attract, but retain the best teachers? Salaries will have to be one answer," Miss DeMary said. "In part, it's a generational thing. Young people are out to get the most money they can."
On average, Virginia teachers were paid $40,197 in the 2000-01 school year, according to the National Education Association. One of Mr. Warner's campaign pledges was to raise teacher pay to the national average, which was $43,335, but prospects look bleak as the state faces a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Miss DeMary said she's confident that legislators will address the problem as soon as the economy improves.
"We can't compete with North Carolina and Maryland unless we look at the entire pay scale, top to bottom," Miss DeMary said. "We've got to stop thinking that just because this is Virginia, people are going to work here."
The budget shortfall also means budget cuts on top of this year's 7 percent and next year's 8 percent at the Department of Education. Miss DeMary said it will be tough to absorb the cuts as demands on public education increase and the Board of Education revises the public school standards of quality for the first time in a decade.
"It's difficult, quite honestly, to provide schools the support they expect with fewer people," she said. "And there's no way we can increase quality standards and not have a fiscal impact. We may not be as bold as we otherwise would be."

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