Va. test reform law includes no money for improved exams

Thousands of Virginia public school students are trying out a new kind of online Standards of Learning test this year that education officials say is proving to be a more efficient exam, offering more precise and valuable information about each student.

The state had planned to roll out the new “adaptive test” across Virginia during the next three years, but a reduction in funding associated with the General Assembly’s decision to eliminate five of the state’s 22 standardized tests is delaying that effort.

Virginia Board of Education members say they are frustrated that a law intended to reform the SOL tests is derailing the movement, already underway, to improve the state assessment program.

Board member James H. Dillard, a former House of Delegates member from Fairfax County, last week likened the new law to “a train going about 75 miles an hour into the station, and there was no stopping it.” With all that momentum, he said, the bill lacked “proper forethought.”

The new law is a response to mounting frustration among educators and parents that students are being overtested and a view that Virginia’s current exams encourage rote memorization rather than higher-order thinking. The law had overwhelming support from lawmakers and statewide education groups, which hailed the elimination of some tests and the shift to developing alternative project-based assessments.

But lawmakers did not set aside any funding for the transition. The state’s budget has not been finalized, but an amendment that would have allocated the $2.9 million in cost savings to help localities develop alternative assessments failed.

The reduction in funding also cut money the state uses for ongoing test development, which is why officials say they can no longer afford to introduce the new adaptive test across all grade levels in math next year. Instead, officials say they will offer the new math tests in grades six, seven and eight.

Adaptive testing is gaining traction around the country. The approach uses a computer algorithm to customize tests, adjusting the difficulty level based on how individual test-takers are performing as they work. The results offer a more detailed snapshot of what students know and can do. Advocates say it’s particularly useful for students who perform at a high level and for those who do poorly, because standard grade-level tests don’t accurately reflect their knowledge and abilities.

Many school districts use adaptive tests throughout the school year to fine-tune instructional approaches. A consortium of more than 20 states that adopted the Common Core State Standards are developing an adaptive test that is scheduled to be implemented next spring.

Christian N. Braunlich, president of the state Board of Education, last week criticized lawmakers in an editorial for the Richmond Times Dispatch for “creating reform on the cheap” by offloading the costs of developing new assessments to local school divisions.

Braunlich also said at a board meeting that the reduction in funding could tarnish the state’s reputation as a leader in online testing. Virginia was one of the first states to abandon paper-and-pencil tests.

“We are running the risk of falling behind the curve in terms of . . . having the technology available to put Virginia at the forefront of the testing regime in the United States,” he said.

Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun), one of the sponsors of the SOL reform bill, agrees that the adaptive test is “the best way to understand an individual student’s performance and abilities” and an important part of overhauling the SOLs. But he said there needs to be a more thoughtful process to determine where cost savings associated with the law should be redirected.

“The Board of Education wants a blank check,” Greason said. “That is absolutely not the approach we want to take.”

Specifically, he said, an “innovation committee” created by the law and composed of parents, teachers, curriculum specialists, lawmakers and school board members will consider ways to improve state tests — including adaptive testing — and then make recommendations to the Board of Education and General Assembly about priorities for future investments.

In place of the multiple-choice tests the legislation eliminated, the new law calls on districts to develop “authentic performance assessments.” These tests aim to document that students are learning the same material and learning to think more analytically than a multiple-choice test could convey.

Such an “authentic assessment” could be an essay, speech or project. It also could be a collection of academic work over time.

State Board of Education members 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 an authentic assessment is and whether the timeline for change is realistic.

Authentic assessments represent an opportunity for teachers to go deeper and collaborate across subject areas, but teachers will need training to use them successfully, said Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria), who was the other sponsor of the SOL reform bill and also sponsored the failed budget amendment that would have diverted savings to localities to help develop alternative tests.

“I am going to work on getting the money again next year,” Krupicka said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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