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Historical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program: Part I

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(Editor’s Note:  Virginia Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe campaigned on a pledge to radically “reform the SOLs” – Virginia’s Standards of Learning and their accompanying tests.  As the General Assembly and the Commonwealth’s opinion leaders begin that discussion it is critically important that we look at why the SOL program began, how it has changed over the years, and why it has gotten the support of every past Governor – George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell.

In its 2013 Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia, the state Board of Education included an Historical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program.  Over the next several editions, the Jefferson Policy Journal will reprint that history so that any discussion of reformimng the SOLs is an informed discussion.)

The Standards of Learning (SOL) have provided a foundation for increased student achievement for nearly two decades. The standards are at the core of a statewide system of support and accountability that has helped make Virginia’s public schools among the nation’s best.

Origins of reform

While the term “Standards of Learning” dates to the early 1980s, what Virginians today regard as the SOL program began in the mid 1990s in the wake of several ineffective attempts at reform and dramatic declines in the achievement of Virginia students on national assessments.

In 1994, the reading scores of Virginia fourth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) plummeted (Editor’s Note:  The NAEP exams are considered the “gold standard” of student assessment and are the national tests against which state exams are benchmarked). This jolt, coupled with a decade of declining SAT scores, lead to a bipartisan consensus around the need for more rigorous academic and instructional standards in the Commonwealth’s public schools.

The structure of the reform took shape through Governor George Allen’s Commission on Champion Schools and the work of the Virginia Board of Education and then-Superintendent of Public Instruction William C. Bosher Jr.

In June 1995, the Board of Education revised the Standards of Learning in English, mathematics, history and science to increase specificity and content rigor. Bosher described the revised SOLs as “the most rigorous set of standards in math, science, English and social studies Virginia has ever known.”

Seven months later, Allen’s commission made its recommendations on the creation of an accountability program based on the new standards. The recommendations included statewide testing in all four content areas, an achievement-based school accreditation system and the publication of annual school report cards.

In September 1997, the Board of Education revised its Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia to carry out the Commission on Champion Schools’ recommendations and create what we now call the SOL program.

SOL testing begins

SOL testing began in 1998 as students in grades 3, 5, 8 and in high school took assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, history and science. Results from the 1998 tests were used to establish proficiency standards for students.

The following year, schools were assigned accreditation ratings based on student achievement on the SOL tests. In 1999, only 116, or 6.5 percent, of the Commonwealth’s 1,791 schools met the accreditation standard, although achievement increased on all tests. Under the new accreditation standards, all schools were expected to have pass rates of at least 70 percent in all four content areas by 2006-2007.

Despite the initially low pass rates on the new state tests, results from the 1998 national reading tests provided an early indication that the SOL program was having a positive impact on student achievement. The percentage of students meeting NAEP’s rigorous standard for proficiency jumped four points. Then-Board of Education President Kirk Schroder described the 1998 NAEP results as tangible evidence that Virginia schools were moving in the right direction.

Creating a statewide system of support

SOL-related initiatives were launched by Allen and his successor, Governor James Gilmore, to support schools in their efforts to improve reading skills and identify and assist students at risk of not meeting new, more rigorous graduation requirements. These efforts marked the beginning of the development of a statewide system of support linked to the standards.

The General Assembly approved the Virginia Early Reading Initiative in 1997 to provide early intervention for kindergartners and first graders (in 2000, this Allen-era initiative was expanded to include students through grade 3). The initiative included the development of a powerful diagnostic assessment to enable teachers and reading specialists to identify and correct reading problems sooner rather than later.

New algebra-related courses and professional development opportunities were developed for middle and high school mathematics teachers, and in 2000, the General Assembly approved Gilmore’s Algebra Readiness Initiative to support diagnostic and intervention services for students in grades 6-9 at risk of not passing the Algebra I SOL test.

During their 2000 session, state lawmakers also approved Gilmore’s SOL Technology Initiative, setting Virginia on a course to become a national leader in online assessment. The initiative authorized annual grants to school divisions, funded through the issuance of notes by the Virginia Public School Authority, to create the infrastructure and purchase the hardware required for online testing, as well as to increase students’ access to technology. By fall 2001, students in 15 school divisions were taking at least some SOL tests online.

The 2000 General Assembly also responded to requests from school divisions by directing the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to develop three new course-specific history/social science tests to administer in grades 5-8 as an alternative to the cumulative grade-8 history/social science assessment. The cumulative test was ultimately phased out in 2008.

Also in 2000, VDOE academic review teams began visiting low-performing schools and assisting in the development and implementation of improvement plans. The Board of Education required schools reviewed because of low student achievement in reading and mathematics to implement instructional programs of proven effectiveness.

During this same year, the Board of Education revised it accountability regulations to provide additional options and flexibility for students in meeting assessment-related diploma requirements that were scheduled to become effective with the class of 2004. The changes included allowing students to substitute Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other rigorous assessments for end-of-course SOL tests in the same subjects (Editor’s Note: In School Year 2014-2015, there will be 88 alternate exams available as a substitute for SOL exams).

Next:  The Warner Administration and continued Support, Improvement and Innovation.

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