The Fairfax County Council of PTAs is seeking to force Virginia officials to release all the questions on the Standards of Learning tests given to students statewide over the past two years.
The council has filed a request for the test questions under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, council President Rosemary Lynch said yesterday. She said the public is entitled to see the content of the high-stakes exams, noting that several educators have raised concerns that some of the questions may be not be age-appropriate or may have more than one acceptable answer.
"There's such secrecy surrounding these tests," Lynch said. "Teachers are told they can't talk about it or they'll lose their jobs. We just felt we had to do this."
State education officials have yet to respond to the council's request, which was sent last week. But Cameron Harris, the Virginia Department of Education official in charge of the state's testing program, said that in her view the exam questions are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
Harris said the state already was planning to release hundreds of questions from last spring's tests within the next few weeks, and to release a complete test in all subject areas within about a year. She said that if the state divulged all the previous questions now, as the Fairfax PTAs have demanded, it would not have enough usable questions for the next round of testing.
The 27 Stanards of Learning exams are administered in grades three, five, eight and in high school. Schools must have a 70 percent student passing rate on most tests by 2007 or risk loss of accreditation. Starting with the Class of 2004, students must pass the high school tests to graduate.
In 1998, the first year the tests were given, only 3 percent of Virginia's public schools met the state's standards. Last spring, that figure rose to about 7 percent. Some parents and teachers have said that the low results create doubts about the credibility of the tests.
So far, Virginia officials have released sample test items but none of the questions that students were actually asked. That policy is not unusual. In Maryland and the District, as well as in several other states, most standardized exam questions are kept confidential because officials want to avoid the cost of generating an entire set of new questions every year.
State lawmakers in Texas, however, agreed in 1997 to release their standardized exams after the tests were given each year, to show that the tests were valid and to give teachers more questions to help their students prepare. Texas officials say the change increased the cost of their testing program by about 25 percent.
Edwin Darden, chairman of the education committee of the Fairfax Council of PTAs, cited a portion of the state's Freedom of Information Act that calls for the release of "minimum competency tests." He said the Standards of Learning tests qualify as such.
"Every day and every month brings us closer to real consequences with these tests," Darden said. "We need this sooner rather than later."
Kirk T. Schroder, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said he considers it critical for the public to see an entire test in every subject as soon as the state has a large enough bank of new questions.
He said the Fairfax council's demand "seems to be a calculated effort to destroy the test."
"Given the council's longstanding opposition to the SOLs, this request seems to be consistent with that," Schroder said.
Lynch said her group is concerned about the exams but not opposed to them.
In Maryland, which administers the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program each year to evaluate school performance, Assistant State Superintendent Ron Peiffer said the state has no plans to change its policy of releasing some, but not all, of the questions from previous administrations of the exam.