Its bad enough many teachers and parents complain our public schools merely ‘teach to the test,’ and rather then develop the academic skills necessary to become life long learners and productive citizens, our children instead learn how best to pass the Standards of Learning tests.But far worse, a dramatic increase in over-identification and misidentification of some children as ‘special education’has left some teachers, parents and even retired administrators fearing state-wide, systematic cheating on the SOLs.
Here’s how it works: Children deemed in need of ‘special education’ are eligible to take less rigorous versions of the SOLs. Tests, teachers say,are given over and over until the student comes up with the right answer.
Since special education and the rights of children and families with disabilities have long been close to my heart, I decided to find out if what I was hearing could be true. To begin the process of sifting fact from fiction, I asked for information from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and Richmond Public Schools (RPS).
Once the data started flowing in from VDOE, I was so stunned I had to ask my friend John Butcher, a retired attorney and a former chemistry professor at Hampden-SydneyCollege, to help analyze and investigate. We spent a month-plus crunching numbers and asking questions. To see his detailed charts and analysis of what we have found so far, click here.
The many who expressed their concerns are not without justification.
Since 2004-2005 when Virginia first allowed school districts to administer the Virginia Grade Level Alternative Assessment (VGLA) – a test designed for children who can master the material but have a disability that prevents them from taking the multiple choice SOL– the number of VGLA tests administered to children in grades three to eight sky-rocketed, from a mere 2,031 to 47,113.
During this time, the number of tests administered to children in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP) – a testfor children in grades three through eight and 11 who can master the material, but have significant cognitive disabilities that prevent their taking the SOLs – has also grown, from 15,401 to 24,002.
By adding the number of VAAP and VGLA tests – tests for children with disabilities significant enough to be excused from taking the regular SOLs – you find that nearly 70,000 wereadministered.At the same time, the Virginia Substitute Evaluation Program (VSEP), available on essentially the same basis as the VGLA but in high school, has languished at 331.
That’s right: 47,113 VGLA tests but only 331 VSEP.
Unless the miraculous properties of Virginia water cure disabilities after the eighth grade, something is rotten here. That something is the grading: Schools grade their own VGLA tests but the State grades the VSEP. On the VAAP, schools can replace the SOL standards with their own. So while the VGLA and the VAAP provide useful tools to inflate SOL scores, the VSEP does not.
If you think the schools wouldn’t cheat orthe State wouldn’t let them, just read what the teachers say.
Virginia‘s SOLs aren’t simply about measuring how well our children, in or out of special education, do in public school. The SOLs are supposed to measure how well the teacher, school, school district and state perform. Yet here we have the schools cooking the numbers to inflate their own SOL scores. And if the schools’ problems are intentionally disguised and distorted, how can we expect to identify, let alone fix those problems?
As to the kids, the dramatic jump in the number of VGLA and VAAP tests will no doubt reap long-term negative results. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that being labeled as disabled profoundly affects a child’s sense of self or that being misidentified as a child with a disability can create lifelong distrust and anger. Add to this the humiliation and frustration of parents who can’t get the needed services for their children because administrators are too busy gaming the system.
We know that the Standards of Learning and the No Child Left Behind Act created high hurdles. It isnot acceptable, however, that the response has been to make liars of schools administrators at all levels, to deprive school systems of the usefulness of true measures of performance and to skew the use of resources in public schools.