Students, educators await test results

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 13, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

This year, for the first time, students must pass the Virginia Standards of Learning tests to graduate, and it’s not only the students but also teachers and parents who are anxious. They’re waiting to see if a six-year program to improve the curriculum and teaching methods to bolster student scores has proven worth the time and investment.

The comprehensive student assessment program was implemented to measure whether students are being taught and are mastering the material contained in the new standards for grades three, five and eight – subjects are English, history, math and science – as well as end-of-course exams in specific high school content areas.

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Under the SOL guidelines, high school seniors must pass the reading and writing tests and four other exams of their choosing, or four tests on a list of acceptable substitutes. Starting in 2007, test credits will have to be spread across the curriculum.

Tonight, in a meeting of Suffolk Public Schools Board, Dr. Lynn Cross will provide a report to the School Board concerning the projected number of seniors graduating in June and the impact of the SOL verified credits on the numbers.

&uot;We will show the progress made by our students in verifying SOL end-of-course tests this year,&uot; said Cross.

She is among other Virginia educators who said it looks as though the number of seniors who won’t graduate because of SOL tests will be lower than they once feared.

Some educators across the state added that the figures might be low enough to avoid the kind of public uproar that has roiled Florida, California and other states as they have approached similar deadlines.

According to a partial survey of Virginia school districts last week – before the results of March testing are in and before the school year’s last tests are given this month – 5.7 percent of the state’s seniors were in danger of not graduating, either because of SOL tests or because they are failing their classes. About 4.8 percent failed to graduate last year and 5.7 percent in 2002, before SOL tests were required.

In Fairfax County, about 5.3 percent of seniors need to pass at least one more exam. With more test results due, this year’s failure rate is likely to be less than last year’s 4.6 percent, Acting Superintendent Brad Draeger said. &uot;We think it’s a good number,&uot; he said. &uot;Even though we’re focusing on the SOLs, every kid is getting tracked so intensively, it raises all boats.&uot;

In Prince William, officials said they have not counted the students who still need exams to graduate, but they said 399 of 3,849 seniors lacked the writing test and 391 had not passed the reading test at the start of March. They said the two groups largely overlap and predicted that no more than 235 seniors, or 6.1 percent of the class, will not graduate. Last year, 8.8 percent of seniors did not get a diploma.

Whatever the reaction to the graduation rate, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has said Virginia will stick with the Standards of Learning program. He declared that after years of preparation, &uot;it’s not fair to school systems or students to back off.&uot;

The difference between Virginia and other states, he argued, is Virginia’s added flexibility and extensive help for struggling students, which has helped convince residents that the exams combine accountability and compassion.

The testing regimen has undergone several changes since its introduction in 1998. In 2000, the state Board of Education voted to allow students to substitute their scores on Advanced Placement, SAT or other exams for some SOL tests, and the list of alternatives now includes certification tests for such technical careers as cosmetology and auto mechanics.

In 2001, after complaints that history scores were significantly lower than those on other tests, the board lowered the number of correct answers needed to pass some of those tests. In 2002, the board decided that a school district can award credit to students who failed a history or science test twice but came close to passing, as long as they passed the corresponding course.

Students also can retake exams as often as needed, and Warner last year introduced a series of intensive courses to help students who are struggling with the reading and algebra exams. Warner said about 75 percent of students who take the classes pass the exams.

&uot;We’re not going to retreat from accountability,&uot; he said, &uot;but we will walk the extra mile with our students.&uot;

The chance to retake tests made the difference for Kory Franklin, 18, a senior at Osbourn. Franklin said he passed the reading and writing tests last year on his first try but had to take his four other tests more than once.

After a summer math class, extra help from his teachers and some nagging from his mother, Franklin passed the exams this year, he said. &uot;It was pretty stressful,&uot; he said, &uot;having to get all that help and review the material every day.&uot;

According to a survey released last month by Virginia Commonwealth University, 59 percent of Virginians think SOL results are an appropriate graduation requirement, and 75 percent agree or strongly agree that SOLs hold schools accountable for student achievement.

Critics of the test, however, said public outcry might still come when students exhaust their final chances to pass before their class’s graduation.

Andy Block, legal director for the Charlottesville-based advocacy group Just Children, said he worries about how school districts outside wealthy Northern Virginia will fare. He argued that the many students who drop out before their senior year aren’t reflected in the statistics on graduation rates.

&uot;My expectation is that the story there is going to be a sad one,&uot; he said.

Others said that many of the alternatives and substitute tests hailed by state education leaders were put in place expressly to lessen the impact of SOL exams this year.

State Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary said schools do students no favors if they let the students leave before they can read and write proficiently in English. She said some students simply need more than four years to graduate, and students could continue to retake exams, including over the summer.

&uot;We’re not preparing these kids to get a diploma,&uot; she said. &uot;We’re preparing them to be successful in life.&uot;