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SOL reductions mulled
Local school officials open to review of standardized tests

Thursday, January 16, 2014

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

An effort in the General Assembly to review and possibly reduce the number of Standards of Learning (SOL) exams Virginia students are required to take is welcome, local school superintendents said Wednesday.

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) has called “for a change in the Virginia accountability and assessment program for several years,” said Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton. He said he considers the current 34 SOL exams “too many. We need to look at limiting the number of assessments.”

SOL tests are given at varying intervals during each student’s academic career. For example, the English SOL test is divided into reading and writing categories. The reading tests are given each year in grades three through 11. The writing tests are given in grades five and eight through 11.

The 34 exams taken by students are over the course of their educational careers, said Pam Heath, Martinsville school superintendent.

On Tuesday, state GOP lawmakers said that reducing the number of exams from 34 to 26 is a key piece of their education agenda during this legislative session.

That effort is expected to gain broad bipartisan support, with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, also signaling his desire for fewer tests.

Heath said the subject has been a topic of discussion among regional and statewide superintendents for some time.

“I think we are hearing across the country that there has been a bit of backlash against such an amount of high-stakes testing,” she said. “Our sense has been that there was going to be some momentum to make some changes.”

The current discussions focus only on the SOL tests, Cotton said, but the accountability system as a whole “is something that needs to be evaluated and discussed.”

He said he would like to see the system more rigorously measure growth in college and career readiness, among other things. “But that is a much bigger conversation,” he said.

In addition to the 34 SOL exams, some other assessments are “required due to federal guidelines” for other classes and programs, he said.

Also, “it’s not just about decreasing the number of assessments” but also creating measurements to determine students’ growth and how they progress, Cotton said.

“Another part of the discussion is the ‘A through F issue,’” in which schools will receive a letter rating of A through F, based on certain measures, Cotton said. Discussions on what those measures will be are ongoing, he added.

Heath said educators have gone to extremes in the testing trend, and it has had consequences. For one thing, multiple-choice testing has created a culture in which students are afraid of being wrong, she said, and that can make them less imaginative and possibly less innovative. Students interested in science or being an entrepreneur may become more intent on getting the right answer than in learning from the failures that are part of the process, she added.

She told anecdotes about students being unable to imagine what they would do in certain circumstances or others unable to answer a question in an essay form because they were so accustomed to multiple choice.

“We now have a generation of students who have known nothing but standardized testing. We also have new teachers coming out of college and that’s all they’ve known,” Heath added.

Heath recognizes that schools have to be accountable, and she said Virginia is ahead of many states in terms of its testing program. But “the federal piece that has gotten attached to it is what makes it seem more punitive and causes more angst on the part of students, staff, parents and families. I hate to see that,” she said.

That “federal piece” has such high stakes because it involves money, she said. “The state oversees the funds and makes sure they are used properly. They can’t take a chance on losing that money.”

The state has suggested that local school systems cut back on tests schools give to prepare students for other tests. The city system has reduced those and now focuses on the application of learning and assesses student understanding as lessons progress, she said.

Balance is needed, Heath said. “In Virginia, we’ve been talking about how do we find the right balance of SOL tests and possible alternative assessments where we focus on measuring growth or where we can be more flexible ... and still hold ourselves accountable.”

Patrick County Acting Superintendent Dean Gilbert said “a re-evaluation of the current accountability system has been overdue for a couple of years now ... more than a couple. I do think we test kids quite a lot.”

Students in some grades may take multiple assessments in a given year, Gilbert said.

He explained that SOLs are among those tests, with others needed for various programs — such as the gifted and talented program — and other screening processes that students enrolled in some classes must take.

Staff members must read test questions to students in lower grades, Gilbert said. That is a time-consuming task that may take staff away from other duties, he added.

Overall, Gilbert said he is glad discussions are underway in Richmond to review and possibly decrease the number of SOL exams.

Heath added that any change approved by legislators probably will be phased in gradually. “There still will be testing,” she added.


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