Once common, perfect Va. SOL scores now rare with new tests

Forty-five percent of Arlington County fifth-graders who took the state Standards of Learning math test in the spring of 2011 not only passed the test, they earned perfect scores. The same was true for 30 percent of the county’s third-graders and for 21 percent of eighth-graders.

The same year in Fairfax County, 29 percent of fifth-graders achieved a perfect score on the math exam, an achievement shared by 26 percent of third-graders and 17 percent of eighth graders.

“There were so many perfect scores that I didn’t value them, and most people didn’t,” said Vern Williams, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School, which has a center for gifted instruction in Fairfax County. “If a kid got a perfect score, okay, that was nice. I expected them to get a perfect score.”

That high rate of perfection changed with the introduction of more rigorous math tests last year. Overall pass rates dropped, and the rate of perfect scores plummeted. In Arlington, just 2 percent of fifth-graders, 1 percent of third-graders and 0.2 percent of eighth-graders earned perfect scores on the new test in 2012.

Virginia’s new standardized tests represent a fundamental shift from emphasizing minimum grade-level skills to more aspirational skills and knowledge young people need to succeed in college or be competitive in the workforce.

The new tests align with updated standards meant to improve instruction for everyone. But they are particularly appealing to some advocates for gifted or high-
performing students, who say they largely have been ignored as schools focus on helping the lowest achievers pass tests in order to comply with federal mandates.

Among the high-performers are tens of thousands of students in Northern Virginia who aced the old tests in recent years, earning 600 out of 600 possible points. A Washington Post analysis found that perfect scores in the past decade went from being relatively rare to commonplace.

It is customary for scores to improve over time as students and teachers grow familiar with a test. And Virginia’s tests were intended to be updated as a greater number of students demonstrated minimum competence, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for Virginia’s Department of Education.

“The ceiling is going to be much higher” on the new tests, he said, which will give schools “a whole new picture” of how top-
performing students are doing.

The increased rigor will mean lower scores and potentially new relevance for a standardized test that many have dismissed.

“I told the kids, ‘You have to take SOLs seriously now,’ ” Williams said.

Virginia is at the front end of a national move toward more rigorous testing, with exams under development by two consortia of states that have signed on to updated standards known as the Common Core. As the Common Core has rolled out in states across the country, test scores have dropped precipitously because of the new standards or because new curricula were not in line with old state exams — such as in Maryland. Virginia is one of the few states that did not adopt the Common Core.

In addition to new math tests, more difficult English tests were administered for the first time in the state this past school year. The new tests focus more on non-
fiction and are built around higher reading and vocabulary levels.

Results for the most recent tests are scheduled to be released next week, and state officials are already warning parents and schools that they should expect to see significant declines in scores.

The rate of perfect scores on the state’s prior English tests was lower than for math tests, the Post analysis found. But double-digit perfect pass rates were not uncommon in the city of Falls Church and in Arlington, Loudoun and Fairfax counties in recent years. In Fairfax County, 22 percent of fourth-graders and 14 percent of sixth-graders earned perfect scores in 2011-2012.

High-performing suburban districts have long strived to exceed the minimum standards reflected on state tests. Constance Skelton, assistant superintendent for instruction for Arlington’s public schools, said school officials were proud of the high number of perfect scores but did not give them too much weight.

“I don’t think we take it as a sign that we are doing wonderfully,” Skelton said. “We consider them to be a floor, not a ceiling.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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