By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; B01
Virginia education leaders moved this week to introduce a standardized test for students with disabilities and phase out a widely used alternative that many officials say is undermining the state's accountability system.
The modified multiple-choice test is expected to be more objective than the flexible, portfolio-style exam that thousands of students in Northern Virginia are assessed with now. The online test will be implemented statewide in the 2011-12 school year in math and the following year in reading. A small sample of schools will try it this spring.
Critics have charged that the portfolio test inflates passing rates and obscures data the public relies on to understand gaps in student achievement. This winter the Virginia General Assembly approved a law to phase out the portfolio "as soon as is feasible."
This "is the first step in carrying out the will of the General Assembly and addressing my own concerns about overuse and misuse of the VGLA," Virginia's superintendent for public instruction, Patricia I. Wright, said in a statement, referring to the Virginia Grade Level Alternative, or portfolio test.
The number of portfolios given in Virginia more than doubled, to 47,000, in the past three years. One in five students with disabilities in grades three to eight was assessed with a portfolio in reading and math in the 2008-09 school year.
The test was originally meant for a small number of special-education students who learn grade-level material but cannot show what they know on a multiple-choice test. Many parents and analysts say that unclear criteria helped the numbers grow, as did the federal government's approval of the reading test in 2007 for use by non-native English speakers just beginning to learn the language.
Portfolios are essentially binders of student work, including quizzes, worksheets and other activities that demonstrate comprehension of each part of the required curriculum. Teachers spend hours compiling them each year.
Some educators say the individualized tests strengthen instruction for students with disabilities because they hold teachers accountable for showing that the youngsters understand a whole year's material.
But average passing rates for portfolios have exceeded those for multiple-choice tests in recent years, causing confusion and concern over why students with the greatest learning challenges were performing the best.
The new multiple-choice test will have a simplified format. It might have fewer multiple-choice options, break up reading passages into shorter sections or provide a math formula along with a question. Not all students using portfolios now will take the new test. Under federal rules, only 2 percent of students who use such modified tests in each grade can be counted toward a district's passing rates.
Many students will likely take regular Standards of Learning multiple-choice exams, which can be administered with extra time or larger print.
Sheree Brown Kaplan, chairman of the special-education committee for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said she was glad the new test would be more objective. But she said parents trying to understand the different tests that are available to special-education students in Virginia can become confused.
"There's the VGLA, the VSEP, the VAAP, the SOL test with accommodations, and now we have the VMAST. . . . It's very complicated," Kaplan said.
There is no timeline for discontinuing the portfolio's use in history, science or writing. And students in early stages of learning English as a second language can continue to take the reading portfolio test.
Federal special-education funds will cover the nearly $5 million cost of field testing the new multiple-choice exam and rolling it out over the next few years.