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Sake of Comparison / September 26, 2013
With everything said about our schools and the state of education in general, sometimes it’s best to relax, take a deep breath, and see what others are complaining about.

After all, people with greater problems than your own are often the best sources to turn to when it comes to understanding the Big Picture.

An example that comes to mind is Virginia’s annual release of SOL scores. The SOLs — short for Standards of Learning tests, given to students in the spring to test their proficiency in a wide range of subjects — typically elicit two reactions: yawns, when things are going reasonably well, and expressions of outrage, if not. Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Education reported falling pass rates on some of last year’s exams, owing to the fact the SOLs in subjects such as English and science were toughened up to promote greater academic rigor. If you scanned the headlines and nothing else, you might think the test results were fairly disastrous. In truth, you really have to wait a year or two to see if schools are able to adjust to the new reality before making such a judgment.

There are exceptions, of course. Over in neighboring Mecklenburg County, the performance on SOLs was an out-and-out bummer, with pass rates falling practically across the board, on the tests that had changed and on those that did not. The local school board, to its credit, hasn’t shied away from the wreakage. Just recently, trustees endured the misery of a line-by-line accounting of test scores, at every grade level and in every course offering, with unflattering comparisons to neighboring school divisions to amp up the pain.

Which is where Halifax County comes in.

Our school division is part of Virginia’s Region 8, which extends from our borders east to Greensville, and north into Buckingham, Cumberland and Amelia. All told, there are a dozen school divisions in Region 8 — each one a peer community. When assessing school performance, it’s a lot more meaningful to compare Halifax to Appomattox, with their similar demographics, than to Fairfax, which represents a whole ‘nother world. So as Mecklenburg school trustees took stock of the county’s test scores, the casual observer also might have noticed a thing or two about Halifax, too.

So exactly how well did our students do?

First, the upside:

• Our elementary kids did quite well. In some cases, they rocked: highest pass rates in Region 8 in third grade reading, fifth grade writing and fifth grade math. Second best in third grade history, third grade math, Virginia history. On all of their SOLs, elementary students achieved pass rates at the high end of the Region 8 spectrum. Pupils, teachers, principals and staff: take a bow.

• At the middle school and high school level, there were definite bright spots. Halifax ranked second on the 11th grade English writing tests. We were fourth in Math 8, U.S. History I (sixth grade), World History II and Virginia and World History. Not too shabby.

The less-than-upside:

• Middle school: can we say “ouch”? It’s in these years where the county school division most obviously has its work cut out. Halifax had the region’s lowest pass rates in English Reading 8, English Writing 8 and Civics and Economics (also taught in the eighth grade). The results in Math 7 — tenth out of 12 — and English Reading 7 — ninth of 12 — were no great shakes, either. Just to lift the mood, it should be noted our students did pretty well in Algebra I (fourth best pass rate), Algebra II (fifth best) and Geometry (sixth best). To complete the review, let’s hope for improvements, please, out of Earth Science (tenth of 12), Biology (11th) and Chemistry (ninth) at the high school.

Elsewhere on this page, you’ll find an op-ed by David Foster, president of the Virginia Board of Education, that aims to demystify the SOLs and put the newspaper headlines about this year’s results in perspective. I don’t entirely agree with Foster’s high praise for Virginia’s testing regimen, but he offers a useful corrective to some common misconceptions about the SOLs. I do think it’s important not to overreact when schools take year-by-year tumbles. Persistent low scores, obviously, are a different matter. It is helpful to know where areas of improvements are to be found


On to matters incorrigible: This week should tell whether the trainwreck wing of the Republican Party really intends to follow through on its threat to shut down the government over Obamacare funding. Or, worse, assuming we somehow muddle through the present crisis, if the GOP is serious about destroying the full faith and credit of the U-S-of-A once debt ceiling talks come to a head in a few weeks. First things first: the federal budget ends on Oct. 1, and unless Congress agrees to a continuing budget resolution by Sunday, the government will shut down for the first time since 1996. Back then, Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House of Representatives and busy making a name for himself as the most reviled man in politics. And today? There are almost too many contenders for the title to count. (Boehner, Cantor, Cruz, pick ‘em.)

The budget/debt ceiling crises are, of course, entirely contrived, not to mention incredibly stupid and silly, and if you’re hanging on the details of this nonsense you might also enjoy the thrill of a hammer coming down swiftly on your thumb. I hate to waste time even writing about this garbage, except to note for the record the parties responsible.

Meantime, Oct. 1 also marks the opening of enrollment on the new health insurance exchanges, one of the major reforms of the Affordable Care Act (neé Obamacare). The health insurance exchanges are billed as “virtual marketplaces” where individuals and businesses can go to compare coverage plans from private insurers such as Anthem and Optima (two of the participating companies in Virginia’s exchange). Most importantly, participation in the exchange is required to receive financial assistance to purchase insurance coverage. (For a family of four, tax subsidies are available up to an income cap of around $94,200 a year). To see how the exchange works, visit That’s also where you can go, starting Oct. 1, to check what plans are available for purchase in Virginia. (The federal government is running the state’s exchange because our fearless leaders in Richmond ducked from the challenge.)

No one knows quite how well the exchanges will function in the early going, and it would come as no great surprise if people encountered some initial glitches. The enrollment period runs through March 2014, and coverage under the new plans doesn’t kick in until January 2014, so there will be some time to sort out problems as they crop up.

In the meantime, one thing you definitely can count on is that Congressional Republicans will have zero interest in fixing parts of the law that could stand improvement. The Affordable Care Act aims to make health coverage affordable and nearly universal while preserving America’s existing private and public insurance sectors, which is no simple task. The balancing act helps to explain the law’s complexity, but it also makes it vulnerable to deceptive claims by Republicans that the Affordable Care Act represents a wholesale government takeover of health care.

With the debut of the exchanges, it may be that the law’s true nature — of working through the status quo to provide insurance to people who need it — will become more clear. One thing’s for sure: the ACA can’t be any more convoluted than what we’re seeing out of Washington these days.

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