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A dismal perspective

Published 8:53pm Saturday, August 24, 2013

It takes some real digging to find good news for Suffolk in the Standards of Learning test results released by the Virginia Department of Education this week, but there is some: Suffolk’s elementary and middle school students were slightly more likely to have passed their math and science tests than their counterparts around the commonwealth. Similarly, third-grade history was a comparatively strong subject for Suffolk.

But that’s about it. Out of 34 tests administered from primary school through high school, Suffolk students’ pass rates last school year lagged the state average in all but eight subjects. Four different math tests, two science tests and two history tests provided the entirety of the positive picture for the city’s public school system.

But even the good news requires some qualification: Even at the elementary level, pass rates reveal that between one-fifth and one-quarter of those taking any given math test didn’t understand the concepts the state considers important. And the fact that those failing students have plenty of company around the state doesn’t make things much better.

In fact, most of the news coming out of the Virginia Department of Education’s SOL announcement this week was bad. In Suffolk, it was often just dismal. Only 62 percent of third-graders and 48 percent of seventh-graders passed their math tests. It’s hard to understand how the city could fail so many of its students in a subject that is so important to the nation’s future.

The failures seem to begin snowballing when young students transition into high school and pursue higher-level and elective mathematics courses. Just 65 percent of those taking the Algebra I test passed it. Those who made it to Algebra II did even worse, with only 45 percent passing. Only 53 percent of those who took the geometry SOL wound up passing it.

There was a lot of discussion this year about the fact that new, computer-based reading and writing tests would result in scores on those tests falling, and that predication seems to have come true around the state, as students were challenged to use their critical-thinking skills in those subjects, instead of relying on rote memorization and multiple-choice guesses. Consequently, an examination of the resulting English test pass rates is at least as discouraging as one concentrating on math scores.

School officials say they have reason to expect English scores to rebound next year, now that students have a year of the new test type under their belts. But judging by the nearly imperceptible bounce in math scores this time — a year after the math tests got the same upgraded treatment as English tests did this year — parents and taxpayers probably should not count on significant improvements.

That’s seems a pretty dismal outlook to have, but considering the dismal pass rates on Suffolk’s SOL tests and the lack of evidence for anything other than incremental and superficial changes to the school system’s approach, it seems a realistic perspective, at least.

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