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Historical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program – Part II

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Editor’s Note:  This is the second 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.  Part I focused on the origins of SOL reform and creation of a system of support under Governors Allen and Gilmore.  Part II discusses continued progress under Governor Mark Warner.

Support for students and schools
After his election in 2001, Governor Mark R. Warner signaled his support for the Standards of Learning reform program by re-appointing Jo-Lynne DeMary as superintendent of public instruction. Warner subsequently endorsed the SOLs explicitly during remarks to the Board of Education and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

At Warner’s direction, an Office of School Improvement was created within VDOE to work closely with low-performing schools to implement best practices.

Warner built on the Board’s academic review process with his Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools (PASS) initiative. PASS paired Title I schools that had become subject to sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 with similar schools that were meeting state and federal standards. The initiative also identified community and private sector partners to provide resources and opportunities for students and teachers.

Continued improvement and innovation
Year-to-year increases in achievement on the SOL tests resulted in ever-higher percentages of schools earning full accreditation. By the fall of 2002, 64 percent of the Commonwealth’s schools had met or exceeded the standards.
“In schools where principals and teachers are implementing best practices and working collaboratively with the department’s academic review teams, instruction is improving and student achievement is rising,” DeMary said.
Virginia’s online assessment system continued to grow as more high schools began administering SOL end-of-course tests online. During the spring 2003 test administration, students in 94 school divisions took approximately 76,000 online assessments. Schools reported that students were comfortable with the online format and that the web-based tests allowed initially unsuccessful students the benefit of speedier retakes.
Results from the 2002 national reading tests showed that the skills of Virginia students continued to improve and that the Commonwealth’s students were among the nation’s strongest readers. The percentage of Virginia fourth graders at or above grade level in reading rose seven points to 37 percent. An equal percentage of Virginia eighth graders met or exceeded the NAEP proficiency standard in reading, a four-point improvement from 1998.

Mark C. Christie, who led the Board of Education during the final year of the Gilmore administration and the first year of the Warner administration, responded to criticism that the gains on the state and national tests did not represent real increases in learning. Christie’s May 2004 article in Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Virginia News Letter also compared the SOL program with earlier attempts at reform.

Critics claim that these dramatic gains merely reflect “teaching to the test.” This cliché is the most intellectually shallow of all the arguments made against the SOL program. The SOL tests measure student learning of the SOL academic content, and our academic content standards in English, math, science and history are among the best in the nation. The SOL reading tests measure a student’s ability to read, the SOL writing tests measure the ability to write, the SOL math tests measure the student’s ability to do math. Do we want teachers to teach these skills? Of course we do.

The performance of Virginia students on the SAT — the dominant college admissions test in the Commonwealth — in 2002 and 2003 provided additional evidence that the SOL program was making an impact on achievement. Virginia high school seniors posted a five-point increase in mathematics on the 2002 SAT and four-point improvement in reading the following year.
The 2003 SAT scores represented an 11-point improvement in mathematics since the beginning of SOL testing in 1998 and a seven-point improvement in reading. Nearly 8,400 more Virginia high school seniors took the SAT in 2003 compared with participation five years earlier.

“By taking the SAT in ever-greater numbers, Virginia students are showing that they are increasingly confident of their academic abilities,” said Thomas M. Jackson Jr., who succeeded Christie as state board president.

New diploma standards take effect
In 2003, Warner launched Project Graduation to help struggling rising seniors pass the SOL tests required to earn a standard or advanced diploma. At the same time, Warner said there would be no retreat from the new diploma requirements due to take effect in 2004.

Project Graduation, which remains part of the SOL program’s statewide system of support, included regional summer academies — where students received focused instruction in reading, writing, and Algebra I — and opportunities to retake corresponding SOL tests.

Thanks to Project Graduation and similar local initiatives — and the efforts of Virginia teachers in preparing students for the higher diploma standards — predictions that tens of thousands of seniors would be denied diplomas in 2004 did not materialize.
Statewide, 2004 graduates equaled 73.5 percent of ninth-grade enrollment four years earlier, compared with an average estimated four-year graduation rate over the previous five years of 74.7 percent.

Warner had fulfilled his promise not to “blink” — as other states had — when new, more rigorous diploma standards were about to take effect.

Next:  Higher Achievement, New Challenges

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