Virginia's new Standards of Learning tests should not be the only basis for deciding which students will graduate from high school and which schools will be accredited, Northern Virginia school board members, educators and parents told a Virginia Board of Education hearing last night.
With few exceptions, the speakers at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge said the state board's efforts to help schools reach its new testing standards are likely to fail unless the board also gives students some credit for good work in class and good teacher evaluations.
"You are working with a basic concept that is flawed," said Prince William County School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly. "The belief that a single test, given to different students on a one-time basis, can determine whether or not a school should be accredited is faulty."
Greg Vanover, a fourth-grade teacher in Prince William County who spoke on behalf of the Virginia Education Association representing teachers throughout the state, said: "Even selection to the top universities in the country is determined by more than just the SAT score. Why is this board committed to place an individual child's success or failure and the entire school's success or failure on one test?"
Last night's hearing, conducted by state school board member Mark C. Christie, was one of five scheduled throughout the state to hear comments on board proposals to help schools that are struggling to reach the testing standards and reward schools that exceed them by large margins. In 2004, under the state's current plan, any high school student who does not pass six of the SOL tests, including one in each of four core subjects, will not receive a diploma. In 2007, schools where at least 70 percent of the students do not pass the tests would lose their state accreditation.
Loraine Goodenough, with three children in Fairfax County schools, said educators should not be punished for failing to overcome social and personal problems that make some students unwilling to study. "The state can mandate opportunity for all," she said, "but it cannot mandate ambition for all."
Most of the speakers said they approved of the idea of setting standards but felt the board risks losing the confidence of teachers and parents if it depends entirely on tests that appear to be too narrow.
"To accurately assess a student's achievements, other tools must be considered, such as classroom assignments, projects, essays and teacher input," said Rosemary Lynch, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.
One of the only speakers to advise the board to take a firm stand against relaxing its rules was Bill Houck, speaking for himself and other members of the Clarke County School Board. "The widely held belief that many children--usually defined on socioeconomic grounds--cannot and will not learn is the greatest impediment to education in this state today," he said. "This idea may provide an excuse for our failure as educators, but it's at a terrible price for these children and for society generally."
Houck added, however, that for students who fail the multiple-choice, computer-scored SOL tests, "additional methods such as oral or computer-administered evaluation should be considered."
Many speakers also objected to board proposals to apply special labels to schools that do exceptionally well on the tests, such as "fully accredited with honors" for schools with an 80 percent pass rate and "fully accredited with high honors" for schools with a 90 percent pass rate.
Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), a member of the Fairfax County School Board, submitted a statement on behalf of his board saying the effort to give special honors to high-achieving schools and teachers "will consume significant time and money. For now, we must concentrate resources on those students who have not been achieving passing scores."
Susan deCorpo, principal of Fairfax's Stone Middle School and president of the county's Middle School Principals Association, has sent a letter to state school board members saying, "The new designations are likely to promote unhealthy competition and comparisons." She said the percentage designations could also be misinterpreted, with parents assuming a school that got over 90 percent was an A school, but an accredited school that got over a 70 percent would be a C school.