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SOL Reform: Will There Be Unintended Consequences?

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In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly replaced one eighth-grade social studies Standards of Learning (SOL) exam with three required middle school SOL tests. In 2009, Virginia’s state superintendent proposed eliminating the third-grade social studies SOL exam, but backed off after opposition from members of the General Assembly.

My. What a difference a couple of years make.

Today, more than 15 bills are under consideration by Virginia’s legislature to “reform” the SOLs. Some proposals, such as eliminating certain tests in the elementary grades when the focus should be on reading and math, have an educational justification. Others, such as requiring SOL assessments to be finalized well in advance of their administration, lean towards ensuring greater fairness.

But others arbitrarily reduce the number of exams, seemingly without considering potential ramifications. Since children today must take four more SOL exams than they would have to had the General Assembly not prevailed in the past, it is worth examining some of these bills to ensure that the law of unintended consequences does not triumph again.

The debate over “SOL testing” centers on claims from local school divisions that there are “too many tests.” Yet much of the testing is actually driven by local school divisions in the form of too many benchmark or “prep” tests, which few divisions are willing to abandon.

Others want “alternative assessments.” Yet, today there are 83 alternative tests students can take instead of the 12 high school end-of-course SOL exams. Most of these are Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (tests demanding career- and college-ready critical-thinking skills) students must pass to receive college credit — yet students consistently report that they’ve been forced to take both exams — a decision driven by local school divisions, not the state.

Dr. Billy Cannaday — a former division superintendent, state superintendent and current member of the state Board of Education — makes the point that the current SOL debate is asking the wrong questions: Instead of “How many tests should we cut back?” the questions ought to be: “What do we want students to know?” and “Are the tests measuring whether they are learning?”

On those questions, we might turn to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Considered the “gold standard” in measuring student academic performance, NAEP is the benchmark against which state progress is measured, and educators anxiously look to those scores when the tests are given (not every subject is given every year).

Its important to compare Virginia using such exams as NAEP, the SAT, the ACT, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, for while some have argued that the SOLs “don’t measure the right things,” no one seems critical of the other exams colleges look at, and that measure student readiness.

So, how has Virginia fared since the SOL exams began? Charts posted on the Virginia Department of Education website are telling.

In 1998, Virginia’s grade-4 NAEP reading scores were just above the national average: 31 percent of Virginia students were proficient or higher, compared with 27 percent of students nationwide. By 2013, Virginia’s numbers had risen to 43 percent; the nation hovered at 34 percent.

The same is true for other NAEP exams: Virginia’s fourth graders were even with the nation in math; by 2013, they scored six points higher. In fourth-grade science, the lead rose from six points in 2000 to 14 points in 2009; in eighth-grade science, Virginia grew a nine-point lead.

Only in eighth-grade reading and math did Virginia not significantly outpace the nation — but that is precisely why the Board of Education has ratcheted up both the standards and the tests in those subject areas over the last two years.

Parents concerned about their child’s employability after graduation should consider what employers want to see in prospective employees: the ability to communicate clearly. National scores on the writing portion of the SAT have dropped eight points since 2007, even as Virginia’s scores rose. Will elimination of some SOL writing tests take our students the way of the nation?

Other college entrance exams tell the same story: On the SAT’s math and reading components, on the corresponding portions of the rival ACT exam, Virginia is at every step pulling away from the nation and rising higher.

Efforts to cut the number of SOL exams by 25 percent might look good on a bumper sticker, but important questions need to be asked: Which exams should be eliminated? Why? To what educational benefit? What will the effect be on the preparedness of Virginia’s students? Would it be better to invest in computer adaptive testing, so that we can eventually get to a point where students who have already mastered SOL content can take the exam any time, and move on to more demanding material?

In 2013,  fourth graders in only 3 states in math and 2 states in reading scored statistically higher than Virginia’s fourth graders in NAEP exams.  Among eighth graders, only 5 states in mathematics and 10 states in reading scored higher.  And Virginia is fifth in the nation in Advanced Placement exam achievement. There are reasons for this. They include good teachers, but also the state’s sustained commitment to good standards and solid measurements.

Before we start making changes, don’t we owe it to Virginia’s students to be certain of what it

might mean for their future?

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