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Historical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program

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Editor’s Note: This is Part III of the Jefferson Policy Journal’s reprint of the Virginia Board of Education’s SOL history published in the 2013 Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. In this issue we cover SOL progress during the Tim Kaine Administration.

A 10-year trend of higher achievement

By 2005, 92 percent of Virginia schools had earned full accreditation as student achievement on the SOLs increased. “This year’s accreditation ratings cap a long, bipartisan process in which we stood firm in our efforts to raise standards and insist on accountability,” Warner said.

“The commitment of successive administrations, the General Assembly, and the Board of Education to the Standards of Learning has allowed Virginia to increase student achievement and provide students and schools with a foundation for even greater success,” DeMary said.

The performance of Virginia students on national reading and mathematics tests in 2005 continued what DeMary described as a 10-year trend of higher achievement in reading and mathematics reflecting the improving quality of instruction in the Commonwealth’s public schools. Virginia fourth- and eighth-grade students again performed at higher levels than their national and regional counterparts.

The percentage of Virginia fourth graders meeting or exceeding the NAEP proficiency standard in mathematics increased in 2005 to 39 percent (compared with only 19 percent in 1996), and the percentage of eighth graders meeting the standard in mathematics increased to 33 percent (compared with 21 percent in 1996).

Virginia fourth-graders led the nation on the 2005 NAEP in science. Forty percent met or exceeded the rigorous NAEP standard for science proficiency, compared with 32 percent five years earlier. Nationwide, only 27 percent of fourth-graders achieved at the proficient level or above. Thirty-five percent of Virginia students in grade 8 met or exceeded the NAEP standard, compared with 29 percent five years earlier. Nationwide, 27 percent of eighth-graders performed at the proficient level or above.
The performance of Virginia high school seniors on the SAT also improved significantly in 2005. The average mathematics score of Virginia public school seniors increased by six points, which was the largest increase in mathematics achievement in the nation.

Virginia also was poised to join a select group of states in which 20 percent or more of high school seniors qualified for college credit by earning a grade of 3 or more on an Advanced Placement (AP) examination. During 2005, 19.3 percent of the Commonwealth’s public highschool seniors earned a grade of 3 or better on at least one AP test, compared with 15.9 percent in 2000. Only four states had a higher percentage of seniors earning grades of 3 or better.

New tests challenge middle schools

In 2006, new reading and mathematics SOL tests were introduced in grades 4, 6 and 7 to comply with the NCLB requirement for annual testing in these subjects in grades 3-8. The new grade- level assessments represented a significant increase in expectations as students were required to demonstrate a deeper mastery of content, especially in math. Mathematics pass rates plunged in middle schools across the state. While nine out of 10 schools still earned full accreditation for 2006-2007, 86 of the state’s 307 middle schools were accredited with warning.

The 2006-2007 school year also was the first to see schools denied accreditation because of persistently low-achievement on the state tests. Four of the six schools denied accreditation were in Petersburg and two were in Sussex County. VDOE’s Office of School Improvement began intensive interventions in these and other low-performing school divisions.

The challenge presented by the more rigorous middle school assessments was met as VDOE and school divisions collaborated to develop new resources, especially for mathematics teachers. The department invited top middle school mathematics teachers from around the Commonwealth to participate in the creation of a series of videos illustrating how various concepts and operations could be effectively presented to diverse learners.

These resources, and others developed as part of this effort, were distributed to school divisions and posted on the VDOE website. The response to the middle school mathematics challenge created a template for future state-division collaborations.

Expanding accountability and recognizing excellence

At the start of his administration in 2006, Governor Timothy M. Kaine called on the Board of Education to include graduation as an accountability factor in the accreditation of high schools. “Most of Virginia’s high school students are meeting or exceeding the Commonwealth’s diploma standards but we must redouble our efforts to address the issues that historically have caused students to dropout or complete high school without earning a diploma,” said Mark E. Emblidge, a former Richmond school board chairman who became president of the state board shortly after Kaine took office.

The board revised the Commonwealth’s accreditation standards to require high schools to meet an annual benchmark for graduation. This addition to the board’s accountability standards became effective with accreditation ratings for the 2011-2012 school year and was made possible by the development in 2008 of a longitudinal student data system that allowed VDOE to calculate cohort graduation and dropout rates for schools, divisions and the state.

School divisions began preparing for the new accountability measure by improving student-data systems and developing new programs to identify and assist students at risk of dropping out.

In 2008, VDOE reported a statewide four-year graduation rate of 81.3 percent for the class of 2008. The following March, VDOE reported a statewide dropout rate of 8.7 percent. By 2013, the graduation rate had risen to 89.1 percent and the dropout rate had fallen to 5.9 percent. Kaine also urged the Board of Education to create a mechanism within the SOL program to recognize and reward schools and school divisions that far exceed state and federal accountability standards. The Board responded in 2007 by approving the Virginia Index of Performance (VIP) incentive program.

Virginia’s progress under the SOL program was recognized by Education Week in its January 2007 Quality Counts report. The report described Virginia students as the most likely to succeed in the nation and said that the typical student in the Commonwealth “enjoys higher achievement and is more likely to finish high school and continue on to college than in other states.” Virginia continues to rank among the top states — most recently fourth — in the annual Quality Counts report.

The College Board’s 2007 Advanced Placement Report to the Nation provided what Kaine described as another milestone on Virginia’s journey from “competence to excellence” under the SOL program as Virginia joined the handful of states in which 20 percent or more of high school seniors earned a grade of 3 or more on an AP examination. Only three states had higher percentages of seniors with scores qualifying for college credit.

Virginia fourth and eighth graders achieved significant overall gains in mathematics on the 2007 NAEP, compared with performance on the national tests two years earlier. And for the first time since the beginning of the national assessment program in the early 1990s, a majority – 60percent – of black fourth graders in the Commonwealth demonstrated reading proficiency at or above the basic level.

Billy K. Cannaday Jr., who succeeded DeMary as state superintendent, said the improvements made 2007 a “watershed year” for the 12-year-old SOL program. “Because of the efforts of thousands of teachers and other educators – and the Commonwealth’s commitment to the Standards of Learning – students who traditionally have lagged behind are now achieving at higher levels,” Cannaday said.

Virginia was the only state to receive a perfect score for academic standards from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in the union’s Sizing Up Standards 2008 report. The AFT evaluated Virginia’s SOLs and the academic standards of other states for clarity, specificity and content. The report by the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union cited Virginia as the only state in the nation to meet the AFTs’ criteria for strong standards in English, mathematics, science and history at all grade levels and in all subject areas.

Next: College- and Career-ready standards

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