Virginia students will take fewer Standards of Learning tests next year

Spring is a busy time for third-grade teacher Marlon Mohammed, who is preparing his students to take the Virginia Standards of Learning tests for the first time.

In addition to reviewing four years of material in reading, math, social studies and science for the cumulative state tests, he also has to teach them how to take the exams. That means familiarizing 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds at Discovery Elementary School in Ashburn with multiple-choice questions and conditioning them to sit through the hour-long tests.

“I have never understood why in third grade, our youngest SOL test takers are taking four tests,” Mohammed said. “It seems like a lot.”

That is poised to change next year. A bill passed in Richmond last month and signed by the governor Friday cuts the number of standardized tests that third-graders take in half, eliminating the social studies and science tests.

The bill, which had overwhelming support from lawmakers and statewide education groups, represents a significant departure from the test-based accountability system the state has built up over two decades. It eliminates five tests in elementary and middle school, reducing the total number from 22 to 17. Instead, school districts will be required to develop alternative assessments that are project-based to show that students are learning the same material.

“We basically freed them to do real hands-on assessments . . . which is much more desirable than a multiple-choice test at the end of the year,” said Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun), a co-sponsor of the bill.

The new law responds to a growing outcry from educators and parents across the state — and the country — that students are being overtested and that standardized tests are being used inappropriately and unfairly to evaluate schools and teachers.

Last 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. Instead of 15, now there are five. Parents and students in Seattle and other cities have mounted their own protests by refusing to take the state tests.

In Virginia, in addition to the third-grade social studies and science tests, a fifth-grade writing test will be eliminated next year, as will two U.S. history tests.

The number of end-of-course SOL tests in high school will remain at 12.

More tests could be trimmed in the future, though, said the bill’s other sponsor, Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria). “We are taking a step-by-step approach,” he said.

Federal law requires testing in reading and math in third grade through eighth grade and once in high school, as well three science tests and a test for students learning English as a second language. Over time, Virginia added tests in science, social studies and writing.

The bill creates an “innovation committee” of parents, teachers, curriculum specialists, lawmakers and school board members, tasked with looking for ways to improve all of Virginia’s tests. The committee will make recommendations to the state Board of Education for changes to the quantity or quality of the tests or the development of other types of assessments.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) campaigned heavily on reforming the state’s tests. In a statement issued Friday, he called the law a “meaningful step toward reforming the Standards of Learning so that we can continue to evaluate students and teachers without stifling innovation and creativity in the classroom.”

At the end of March, McAuliffe appointed Steve Staples, former head of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, as the state’s next superintendent of instruction, putting an outspoken advocate for testing reform in charge of implementing the new law.

Staples led an effort to rally educators around the movement for testing reform. His association drafted a model resolution that called on the legislature to rethink the “over reliance on high stakes testing . . . [which] continues to strangle public schools.”

Similar resolutions were passed by more than 60 school boards in Virginia.

Staples said in an interview that the state’s two-decades-old accountability system has led to some “really significant, positive things” by providing a trove of data that can be used to analyze trends and highlight problem areas.

But he said multiple-choice tests have proved an inadequate measure of how well students and schools are preparing for the changing demands of colleges and careers.

Five years ago, Pat Wright, the outgoing state superintendent, proposed eliminating the third-grade social studies tests to free up instructional time. But many social studies teachers protested the change, concerned that if the subject was not tested, it would not be adequately taught.

This year, the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators supported the proposed reduction in social studies SOL tests in part because the bill requires districts to use alternative assessments.

William Brazier, the consortium’s former president and the social science supervisor in Loudoun County, said the new tests could be more powerful teaching tools because they encourage students to analyze historical information through essays, presentations or PowerPoint creations rather than simply memorizing facts.

“I can’t imagine why we ever let ourselves get in a situation where we work all year for one 50- or 60-question multiple-choice test,” he said. At the same time, he said, a lot of teachers are nervous about moving to a very different kind of testing.

The association has asked the governor and the bill’s sponsors to consider a one-year delay in implementation to allow the state Board of Education to develop guidelines and school districts to develop new assessments.

Mohammed said he already assigns projects in his Ashburn class to see whether the students understand the material, such as asking them to act out phases of the water cycle or design a simple machine “to trap leprechauns.”

He said he is excited about the prospect of spending more time on these kinds of activities. But he’s also fearful that without the tests, more classroom time will be devoted to reading and math: “The skills that they find in science and social studies are very important; a lot of critical thinking comes from science.”

Krupicka said that next year will be transitional. “We will have some time to experiment and try some new things,” such as creative writing assignments and presentations, the Virginia delegate said. “These are the kind of things that parents want to have happening in the classroom.”

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