The social studies question for third-graders looked simple enough: "Which statement best explains the main idea of the Declaration of Independence?" The correct answer was: "All people are born free and have equal rights."
Not so fast, said Gerald W. Bracey, a Fairfax-based educational consultant. The Declaration's main point isn't that people are born free, it's that governments must secure rights for people so they can enjoy them, Bracey concluded. That question, like several of the other 172 Standards of Learning (SOL) test items released last week by Virginia officials, was therefore defective, he said.
In her Richmond office overlooking the James River, Cameron Harris, the state's assistant school superintendent for assessment and reporting, made an exasperated sound. "We are talking about third-graders," she said. "This is not a seminar on constitutional law and the Declaration of Independence."
So it went last week in many offices, faculty lounges and family computer rooms where the SOL exams have become a minor obsession and the test questions, until now, were pretty much a mystery. The annual statewide achievement tests, given in third, fifth and eighth grade and high school, eventually will determine which schools are accredited and which high school students graduate.
Officials at the Virginia Department of Education said they had to wait until now to release items from previous SOL exams because they did not have enough new items in reserve. The questions released last week, taken from the 1998 round of testing, were posted on the department's Web site, www.pen.k12.va.us.
Many educators welcomed the posting, saying the debate over the exams' content no longer will wallow in ignorance. In the two years that the tests have been given, teachers and students tried to remember the questions they saw on test day, but no one has been allowed to keep copies for reference.
"It has been very difficult because you can only discuss what people's impressions were at the time they saw the item, and it is very difficult to correct an impression," said Kathleen Wills, assistant director of planning and assessment for the Arlington County schools.
Based on such anecdotes, many teachers and parents had criticized the SOL social studies questions as requiring too much memorization of obscure names and dates.
After reviewing the multiple-choice questions issued last week, Arlington school administrators concluded that some of the social studies items might be too detail-oriented, Wills said.
But Bernie Glaze, specialist for advanced academic programs for the Fairfax County schools, said she was generally happy with the quality of the social studies questions.
None of last week's questions asked the name of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's personal assistant, one of the rumored U.S. history questions that had upset many parents and teachers. Harris said she has never seen such a question and does not believe it exists on any SOL test.
Glaze was among several readers bothered by what they saw as racial insensitivity in one high school history question. It asked how Northerners reacted to the influx of African Americans from the South after World War I. The correct answer was: "Many saw them as cheap labor and a threat to their jobs."
"As a teacher, I would not have written such a question," Glaze said.
Some SOL critics wondered about a third-grade question that asked how someone might buy a television set without paying for it immediately. The desired answer was "credit," but there were protests that two other answers, "check" and "barter," could also be right.
Harris shrugged this off as adults unable to imagine themselves in the third grade. "The curriculum guide makes it clear that children are going to be taught the right answer is `credit,' " she said. "This is very basic economics, not Keynesian theory."
Bracey also complained of a fifth-grade question on which students were supposed to know that communities near highway exits would be the most likely to benefit from the interstate highway system. He thought that another answer, seashore communities, might also be right because better roads make it easier for tourists to get to the ocean.
Bracey once had a job in Richmond similar to the one Harris has now. He said he sympathizes with test makers, who learn early that multiple-choice questions are easy to grade but difficult to write. Although the SOL questions generally seem to be good, Bracey said, "there is a disturbingly large proportion that have more than one right answer or don't have a right answer."
Harris said she likes releasing questions and hearing complaints, even those she described as "picky."
"I think it is a good part of the process," she said. "I don't think we will ever have a perfect test."
Grading the Questions
Questions from the 1998 Virginia Standards of Learning tests that were posted on the Web last week by state education officials have drawn both praise and criticism from teachers, parents and testing specialists.
Educators praised this question from the high school U.S. history exam, saying it requires an understanding of an important historical concept and not simply a memorization of facts.
Which practice in schools did the decision in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case eliminate?
A. Affirmative Action
B. Busing to achieve integration
C. Legal segregation in public schools
D. Censorship of school newspapers
These two questions -- the first one for third graders, the second one for fifth-raders -- were among those criticized by some educators as having more than one possible correct answer.
Mr. Polk wants to buy a television. Which way of payment will let him take the television home now, but pay for it later?
Interstate highways have helped the economies of some rural towns and hurt the economies of others. The towns that have prospered are usually located --
A. near a river
B. near an exit
C. on the ocean
D. in the mountains
This fifth-grade question was among those criticized by some as being too difficult.
Which of these is made up of cells?
ANSWERS: 1.C 2.D 3.B 4.B