Virginia lawmakers call for fewer SOL tests

Two local lawmakers are leading the charge to reduce the number of standardized tests that Virginia students are required to take and to move beyond the bubble-test era to next-generation assessments that reflect more advanced skills.

Dels. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun) and Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) introduced bills that would cut the number of tests by as many as eight — from 34 to 26 during a student’s kindergarten-through-12th-grade career — and direct local school boards and the state Board of Education to develop alternative assessments.

Testing reform promises to be the broadest education legislation the General Assembly will consider this year. It has support from frustrated parents, nearly all of the state’s major education associations and a new governor who campaigned on updating the state’s tests.

“A lot of folks are tired of the incredible testing machine that we are turning our schools into,” Krupicka said.

The effort also reflects growing push-back against the federal testing-based accountability system that is taking root in the nation’s statehouses and city boardrooms.

In the past year, the Texas legislature approved a dramatic reduction in the number of end-of-course exams students are required to take to graduate from high school, from 15 to five, after a storm of activism among parents and educators. A mandatory standardized test in Seattle was made optional for high schools after teachers organized a boycott against it.

“There’s a widespread perception — from the grass roots to the policy elite — that enough is enough and that there needs to be a substantial swing of the pendulum in the other direction,” said Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, better known as Fairtest, which advocates for testing reform.

Many state leaders are delaying or resisting implementation of new assessments that are being developed for 45 states and the District of Columbia that signed on to a uniform national set of academic standards, known as the Common Core. The goal is to improve the quality of testing and raise student achievement, but some have criticized the implementation of the new tests as disruptive and have questioned whether they will successfully assess deeper learning.

Virginia did not adopt the Common Core, but it has not avoided the national angst over standardized testing.

The federal government requires numerous tests of all U.S. students beginning in the third grade, including annual and periodic exams in subjects such as reading, math and science. An English proficiency test is required for English language learners, and tests in other areas such as social studies, writing and geography are optional.

Greason, chairman of a House Education Reform subcommittee, is proposing to reduce the number of required end-of-course tests by nearly 25 percent, focusing mostly on optional social studies and science tests. Local school districts would be required to give alternative tests in those classes or offer some type of proof that the courses were completed.

“I hope that gives our teachers and students a little bit of breathing room,” he said. “Right now it feels like test after test after test.”

He and other Republican lawmakers are planning to unveil their testing reform plan during a news conference Tuesday morning. In an interview, Greason said the proposed law would direct the Virginia Board of Education to review the remaining assessments and develop guidelines for improving the tests’ capacity for assessing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Krupicka’s bill would replace one social studies and one science test in elementary school and two social studies tests in middle school with project-based assessments. The bill also would create the option to replace high school social studies and science tests with alternative assessments.

His proposal earned the support of the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators. He said this is key, because eliminating standardized tests often leads to concerns that schools will no longer emphasize the subjects.

Greason and Krupicka are working together to merge their proposals in a way that does not diminish the importance of science or social studies courses.

“There’s no R’s or D’s here,” Greason said, referring to political parties. “This is an issue that any parent will tell you is important.”

Virginia’s Board of Education has revised its tests so they are more reflective of what students need to know to attend college or begin an entry-level job, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Education Department.

Many of the state’s new online tests include “technology-enhanced items” that require students to think critically and solve problems. The more rigorous tests caused scores to drop around the state.

Greason applauded the work the state has been doing and said the legislature would build on those reforms and codify them.

Other education reform bills have been introduced, and more are likely on the way. One proposal would establish a committee to study options for changing the number, frequency or content of the state’s tests. Some lawmakers want to change the timing of the tests or provide more flexible windows for retakes.

Such changes have the support of more than 60 school boards — including in Prince William and Fairfax counties — which passed resolutions in recent months calling on the General Assembly to reexamine the state’s testing and accountability system.

Many boards adopted a resolution drafted by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents that calls for a system that “allows for expedited test retakes, and more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success, enhances the role of teachers as designers, guides to instruction and leaders, and nurtures the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students.”

Fairfax school board members in December voted to make it a priority to de-emphasize Standards of Learning test results in their own performance reports, and they asked the superintendent to develop a new plan for assessing students by next year.

“This is not really how we want to measure our kids,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill). “We are looking for a whole new framework.”

Testing reform also was a key part of newly elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s education platform. He called for better tests that tap higher-order thinking skills and said school districts should have more flexibility to administer them.

A statewide coalition of education associations, including groups that represent teachers, parents, school boards and superintendents, also recently lent its collective support for testing reform, said Steve Staples, executive director of the superintendents group.

After several years of advocacy, Staples said he is excited that testing reform appears to be gaining traction.

“Last year, SOL reform was an orphan — we could not get anyone to adopt it,” Staples said. “This year, there are 100 birth parents wanting to claim responsibility. All of a sudden it’s everyone’s initiative.”

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