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Historical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program

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educationwork150Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series, reprinting the Virginia Board of Education’s SOL history published in the 2013 Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. This part discusses changes to the Standards of Learning upgrading to college-and career-ready standards and moving beyond multiple choice questions.

College- and career-ready standards

As it prepared to carry out legislatively mandated reviews of the Standards of Learning in mathematics and English, the Board of Education directed VDOE to study factors contributing to success in postsecondary education. As part of that effort, the department asked the College Board, ACT and the bipartisan education reform organization Achieve to compare their respective standards for postsecondary readiness with the English and mathematics SOLs.

The board’s determination to increase the rigor of the SOL program — by shifting its focus from grade-level competency to college and career readiness — was reinforced by the relatively flat performance of Virginia students on the 2009 NAEP. “Our challenge is to build on the progress Virginia students have already made under the Standards of Learning program — especially in middle school and among minority students,” then-Board President Eleanor B. Saslaw said.

The 2009 revision of Virginia’s mathematics standards and the 2010 revision of the English and science SOLs reflected the input of the College Board, ACT and Achieve, as well as recommendations from college faculty and the business community.

“If Virginia’s students master the state standards, they will likely be well prepared for both workplace and college success,” Achieve reported.

After taking office in 2010, Governor Robert F. McDonnell signaled his support for increasing the rigor of the SOL program as Virginia came under pressure from the US Department of Education to replace the SOLs with the newly developed Common Core State Standards.

“We can’t go back,” McDonnell told the Washington Post in May 2010. “We’ve been working on this for 15 years.”

The following month, the Board of Education reaffirmed its commitment to the SOL program and opposition to adoption of the Common Core as a prerequisite for participation in federal competitive grant programs.

“The Standards of Learning are clear and rigorous and have won the acceptance and trust of Virginia educators,” the board said in a unanimously approved resolution. “Whatever adjustments might be warranted to ensure alignment of the SOL with the Common Core State Standards can be made within the process through which the Board of Education exercises its constitutional authority to establish standards for the Commonwealth’s public schools.”

In January 2011, Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright, who succeeded Cannaday

during the Kaine administration and was reappointed by McDonnell, warned state lawmakers that the transition to more rigorous standards would lead to short-term declines in pass rates on state tests.

“Our schools will begin a new trend line as these more rigorous standards and benchmarks become effective over the next few years,” Wright said. “But we must not become alarmed or discouraged. And we must not give in to the temptation to preserve the status quo when we know in our hearts that we must raise standards for our young people to remain competitive in the 21st century.”

Also in January, the National Center for Education statistics released results from revamped national science assessments administered in 2009. Virginia fourth graders again led the nation in science, with 46 percent meeting or exceeding the NAEP proficiency standard. Thirty-six percent of Virginia eighth graders performed at or above the proficiency level, with students in only six states ranking higher.

By spring 2011, 2.2 million SOL tests were being taken online. Pleased with the growth and success of the online assessment program, the General Assembly mandated that all SOL tests be administered online by spring 2013, except in cases where a student’s disability necessitated a paper-and-pencil test.

In a July 2011 commentary published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wright addressed questions about the growth of testing in the Commonwealth’s schools:

Is there too much testing in Virginia’s public schools? Is “test preparation” crowding out real teaching and learning in some schools? You may be surprised that my answer, as one of the architects of the SOL program, is “yes” to both questions.

But in considering the amount of testing, it is important to distinguish between the actual SOL tests required by the Commonwealth and the myriad assessments that local administrators have put in place to identify students at risk of not passing the SOLs and potentially jeopardizing a school’s accountability rating.

Wright also noted the concerns of Board of Education members that local decisions sometimes prevented teachers from weaving SOL content into engaging curriculum, as originally intended by the Board. She pointed out that the overemphasis on “test prep” in some divisions was also counter to research showing that the best way to prepare students is to provide instruction that exceeds the depth and rigor of the standards.

Accreditation ratings announced in the fall of 2011 marked an all-time high, despite the introduction of new history and social science SOL tests during 2010-2011. Ninety-six percent of schools were fully accredited and only eight middle schools remained on academic warning.

Additional evidence of the continuing impact of the SOL reform was provided by results from the 2011 NAEP. In mathematics, the percentage of grade-8 students who met or exceeded the NAEP standard for proficiency increased by four points to 40 percent and the percentage of fourth-grade students at or above proficiency rose three points to 46 percent.

Wright said the gains on the national mathematics tests confirmed the improvements in teaching and

learning that followed the introduction of grade-level SOL testing in 2006, and mirrored increases in achievement on the middle school mathematics and Algebra I SOL tests.

Beyond multiple choice

Students began taking SOL tests based on the 2009 mathematics standards in 2011-2012, and new tests in reading, writing and science were introduced in 2012-2013. The new online assessments included innovative technology-enhanced items that required students to apply their content knowledge and employ problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The items mirrored students’ classroom experiences and were widely praised by mathematics teachers and division-level instructional leaders.

As predicted, the new SOLs produced lower pass rates. But during 2012-2013, the second year for the new mathematics assessments, students made gains on every grade-level and end-of-course mathematics test.

“As schools adapt to the new SOLs and as our talented, hardworking teachers continue to engage students, I am confident that we will see improvement in English and science scores just as we did in math scores,” Board of Education President David M. Foster said. “In turn, we will improve the odds that our graduates are equipped to succeed in a competitive, fast-changing world. We owe it to our students and to ourselves to set high expectations — and then to do all that we can to help each student meet those expectations.”

In response to concerns from school divisions about the amount of time it took some students to complete the new mathematics SOL tests, VDOE surveyed teachers and other educators from 16 relatively high-scoring divisions. High expectations for students, thorough knowledge of the 2009 Mathematics SOL Curriculum Framework, and an emphasis on multistep problem solving and vocabulary throughout the year were cited as contributing to the success of students who completed the new tests in three or fewer hours.

An online survey conducted at the close of the 2011-2012 school year found overwhelming support among teachers for increasing the flow of SOL-related information and resources from VDOE directly to classroom teachers. As a result, the department in January 2013 launched TeacherDirect, a weekly e-mail bulletin informing teachers of the latest SOL resources and professional development opportunities. This marked a significant break from the long-standing practice of channeling information through school division central offices.

By the fall of 2013, the impact of the Commonwealth’s college- and career-ready standards and assessments was clear in the accreditation ratings by VDOE.

Seventy-seven percent, or 1,413, of Virginia’s 1,828 public schools were rated as fully accredited for 2013-2014, compared with 93 percent for 2012-2013. The number of schools accredited with warning nearly quadrupled to 395, and six schools have been denied state accreditation because of chronically low achievement.

“Over the last five years, the accreditation bar has been raised through the introduction of more rigorous curriculum standards and challenging new assessments that test students’ problem-solving and

critical-thinking skills as well as their content knowledge,” Wright said. “In addition, the benchmark pass rates required for full accreditation have increased, and high schools must meet goals for improving graduation rates.”

“The focus of the SOL program has shifted to the ambitious but vital goal of college and career readiness for all students,” Foster added. “Temporary declines in SOL scores and accreditation ratings are signs that the Commonwealth is expecting more, not that students are learning less.”

The 2013-2014 school year opened on an encouraging note as results from both the ACT and SAT college-admissions tests showed across-board-gains for Virginia students, despite nationwide declines in student achievement on both assessments.

The percentage of Virginia public school students meeting ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, mathematics and science was 10 or more points higher than the percentages nationwide. Black students narrowed the achievement gap in all three SAT subject areas by achieving larger gains than Virginia public school students overall.

Foster said the SAT and ACT results demonstrated that Virginia students were continuing to make progress under the SOL program and the college- and career-ready expectations introduced by the Board since 2009.

Next: International Comparisons, the 2013 NAEP and beyond …


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