2017-08-02 / Front Page

State considers reducing role of SOL tests

Superintendent: A ‘positive movement’ for county schools

The Virginia Board of Education is considering reducing the role that Standards of Learning tests play in school accreditation – a move that could signal a dramatic shift in how schools are evaluated by state regulators.

Presently, a school’s pass rates on SOL tests determine whether it is accredited by the state. The Virginia Board of Education, however, is considering changes to the department’s accreditation standards that would take other factors into account, including a school’s success in reducing absenteeism and narrowing achievement gaps.

“We’re looking at potentially a different way of determining accreditation for schools, not this current school year, but next school year,” says Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for VDOE. “The Standards of Accreditation proposals are looking to provide more emphasis on skills and less emphasis on SOL tests.” James Lane, superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools, says the proposals are something education coalitions have championed for years.

“We believe this is a positive movement for the students of Chesterfield,” Lane says. “We believe that the full picture of a school’s performance is much broader than just the SOLs.”

The revised standards being considered by the state include three rating levels for schools: level one, where performance indicators meet or exceed state standards; level two, where performance indicators are near standard or making sufficient progress; and level three, where performance indicators are judged as below standard.

Schools with all indicators at level one or two will receive an overall rating of Accredited. Schools with one or more level-three indicators will receive an overall rating of Accredited with Conditions. Schools that don’t adopt and implement corrective actions to address level-three indicators may be denied accreditation. The proposals will also reduce the number of SOL tests that students are required to pass in order to graduate.

Lane says Chesterfield is in the process of rethinking how student growth is assessed. No lone assessment, such as SOLs, can accurately represent all students in the school system, Lane says.

“It’s really all of [the assessments] together that’s going to tell the whole story,” says Lane, adding that performance assessments are still important. “We see a lot that we can use to help improve our schools, and not just hold them accountable.”

Tom Shields, associate professor and director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond, says the nationwide move toward standardized testing began in the late 1980s.

In 1995, the Virginia Board of Education approved SOLs in the subjects of math, science, English, and history and social sciences. The Virginia Board of Education created new Standards of Accreditation in 1997, linking school accreditation with the SOLs. When former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required states to develop assessments in basic skills, Virginia incorporated the changes into its SOLs. That act was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Virginia has always led the way with standardized testing and assessments, and we didn’t adopt the Common Core, because we liked what we had on the books here,” says Shields, referring to an education initiative most states have adopted. “I think people would always point to Virginia as having … one of the more reputable standardized frameworks and assessments. Unfortunately, though, as has happened in other states, we’ve allowed the assessments and the testing to drive instruction.”

Shields says high-stakes testing can have consequences, especially to schools that cater to a student body with a predominantly lower socioeconomic background. Learning while under the threat of losing accreditation can impact students negatively, he says.

“If your focus is just accreditation and the test, you’re not going to have necessarily great instruction,” Shields says. “If you’re allowing your teachers to be creative and … allow your students to grow, you’re going to have good instruction.”

Shields says standardized testing has changed instruction and how school divisions create incentives. One good thing to come from standardized testing, Shields says, is that the data allows education authorities to look at factors like race, sex, ethnicity and attendance to see where improvements can be made.

Even if the VDOE proposals are approved, Shields says the SOLs will still play a large role in school instruction and evaluation. “They’re still really going to be very important, and to change behaviors and change the cultures in schools, it’s going to have to be a pretty dramatic shift for school systems to stop utilizing them,” Shields says. “The SOLs are still important. It might not be as important in the future, but it is unknown where the state will land.”

As the Every Student Succeeds Act is an Obama-era act, Shields says the future is unclear as to how it will continue to be implemented. A number of states have submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education, but Shields says there’s confusion about what the Trump administration wants.

As far as Virginia’s proposed accreditation changes go, the department is seeking input.

“We are currently seeking and having public hearings and public comment on these Standards of Accreditation, which will change dramatically how accreditation is calculated,” Grimes says.

Public comment will be accepted on the proposals through Oct. 6, including through town halls and online. If all goes according to schedule, Grimes says the plan could be approved by the end of the year. ¦

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