Virginia’s Board of Education criticized the General Assembly Wednesday for approving major changes to the state Standards of Learning assessment program without providing any funding to help districts make changes.
The new law, which had overwhelming support from lawmakers and statewide education groups, eliminates five tests in elementary and middle school and requires school districts to develop alternative assessments that are project-based to show that students are learning the same material.
But lawmakers did not set aside funding for the transition. A budget bill that would have allocated the $2.9 million in cost savings associated with the eliminated tests to professional development failed.
Board member James H. Dillard, a former House of Delegates member from Fairfax County, likened the new law to “a train going abut 75 miles an hour into the station, and there was no stopping it.” With all that momentum, he said, the bill lacked “proper forethought.”
State board members now have until July to develop guidelines that will help local school districts implement alternative assessments starting next school year.
During a meeting Wednesday, some board members expressed confusion about what kinds of alternative tests the legislature is calling for and whether the timeline for change is realistic. They also considered the challenge of adapting the new, more loosely defined tests, for students with learning disabilities.
State education officials also informed the board that the reduction in funding from the eliminated tests will slow down the state’s ongoing efforts to update and improve its testing program by rolling out newly developed computer adaptive tests. The updated tests can provide more detailed feedback about what students at all ability levels understand and can do.
Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the SOL reform bill and the failed budget amendment, said he will try again next year to secure funding for teacher training.
Krupicka said the goal is not for every school district to develop costly new district-level standardized tests. The laws call for districts to use so-called “authentic assessments,” which could include projects or essays or activities that are already happening in the classroom. But teachers need to be trained to systematically capture information about how students are performing on these tasks.
In an editorial for the Richmond Times Dispatch published this week, board president Christian N. Braunlich was more pointed in his criticism. He said lawmakers were “creating reform on the cheap” by off-loading the costs of developing new assessments to local school divisions.
Braunlich defended the state’s standards and assessment program, which has helped Virginia become one among the nation’s highest performing states on multiple measures, including Advanced Placement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
He warned that the “rush for SOL reform runs the risk of leaving behind those who have been helped by standards,” in particular minority students who historically suffered from “inferior expectations” before state standards created uniform expectations for what everyone should learn.
He said advocates of the reform bill should be wary of such unintended consequences.
“Be careful of what you ask for. You might get it,” he wrote.