Panettieri met recently with The Washington Post to discuss the role of his office in making sure Loudoun schools meet state and federal testing requirements.
What is the purpose of SOL [Standards of Learning] testing?
SOL testing provides a measure for the individual child of how they’re doing in the areas that are addressed by SOL testing, and it’s also a diploma requirement for high school kids.
They have to accrue a certain number of verified credits, and a verified credit is, “I passed the course and I passed the SOL test,” and those two things together [are] a verified credit. Kids need that for a diploma. But it’s also accountability. SOL scores figure into Virginia accreditation and into federal accountability now, so it really serves both purposes.
How are the tests used for accountability?
The idea of the Standards of Learning and the tests that go along with them is that every student in Virginia is entitled to a certain level of education, a certain proficiency. And accountability is the measure that goes along with it. In other words, we have the Standards of Learning, which are what we’re teaching kids, and then we have the Standards of Learning tests, where every kid in Virginia is going to take the same test. It provides a measure for all of the schools in terms of, “You need to meet this benchmark to evidence that you’re providing a fair education for the students.”
How do you prepare the schools for testing?
We schedule training for the schools. Each school has a school test coordinator. At the building level, they’re the person responsible for all of the testing. So we do training with the school test coordinators, about three or four weeks before we start testing.
The school test coordinators then train the people in their buildings — their examiners, their proctors and everybody — and then we actually move into the [testing] window.
What does your office do while the testing is taking place?
When we’re actually testing, we do phone support. The phone starts ringing here at 7 in the morning, and it rings until 5:30 at night, and people call us with any questions they have, like if there are problems with testing, or “This doesn’t work the way I thought it was going to,” or “I have a student who just showed up with a broken arm. What should we do?”
We offer that support for the schools 24/7. We don’t have voice mail here. I decided not to get voice mail for this office because
. . . if they have a student who’s sitting in front of a computer testing, and it’s not working, it’s not going to help anybody if they call here and get voice mail. They need to speak to somebody now. So if anybody calls, they’re always going to get one of us, they’re going to get immediate help. And also, I give all of them my home phone numbers. Every school test coordinator in the county has my home phone number.
How do teachers feel about the tests?
Teachers are certainly interested in how their kids do. As soon as you test the kids, teachers want to know, “When can I look at the scores? When can I see how my kids did?” They want to know as soon as the kids walk out the door.
Evaluation is kind of intrusive, if you think about it . . . it always feels as if there’s an outside agency that’s evaluating according to their directives. Of course, it feels kind of intrusive. But it’s also very necessary. We’re ensuring that everybody in the state of Virginia is getting some minimal, some adequate instruction, reaching the same level.
Is the workload increasing in terms of the numbers of tests you administer?
It has increased in that when No Child Left Behind came along, that mandated that we do reading and math at every grade level, three through eight. So it did add tests where we weren’t doing as much testing before. But is there any additional testing on the horizon? I don’t see where it would come from.
What’s the biggest challenge your office faces?
The feeling that there’s never enough hours in the day or days in the week. My short day is 10 hours. If I get out of here in 10 hours, I feel like that’s a good day. But in the busy times of the year, I wind up coming in a lot of times on Sunday. And busy times of the year, we’re here for a big chunk of time. It’s not unusual for us to be here for 12 hours and come in sometimes on Saturday and Sunday.
With the new online testing, everybody thinks, “You’re doing online testing now, so you don’t have all those booklets to handle. It’s so much easier.” Well, in a way it’s easier, because we’re not moving materials around as much. But it’s entirely different in that it’s all immediate; that is, everything happens right now. If we’re testing a student online, and the school has a question and they call us, and the kid’s sitting in front of a computer, we can’t say, “I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” They need something right now. It’s a real hectic pace for us at peak season. It can be a long, long day.
On the other hand . . . I think we all get a lot of satisfaction, the fact that we did it. It was done, it was done correctly, and everything turned out the way it’s supposed to. There is a lot of preparation work that goes into it, there’s a lot of work that goes into it when we’re actually testing, but at the back end of it, when it’s all done and it all goes well, it feels really good.