Higher SOL Scores: Improved Student Achievement… or Bureaucratic Blarney?

Source: Virginia Department of Education

Source: Virginia Department of Education

by James A. Bacon

Seeming good news from the Virginia Department of Education: Virginia students showed significant improvement in their SOL scores in the 2014-2015 school year. Pass rates increased five percentage points for mathematics (from 74% to 79%) and reading (also 74% to 79%) from the previous year. Pass rates for writing increased two percentage points (from 75% to 77%).

Also encouraging: Hispanic and African-American students closed some of the achievement gap with white and Asian students. “The gap in reading between black and white students has narrowed by two points since more challenging reading tests were introduced,” states the VDOE press release released this morning

“Virginia teachers and students are adapting to the more rigorous standards implemented by the state Board of Education several years ago,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples. “The positive trend lines confirm that meeting these new standards is possible, although it will take time for schools to complete the adjustment.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The question is, how real are these gains? The 2014-2015 school  year was the first in which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test. In other words, most of the improved performance reflects a change in administering the tests — a change designed to improve results — not a change in underlying achievement!

Staples defended the change:

By providing a second chance, we get a more complete picture of the performance of schools in preparing students to meet the commonwealth’s high expectations for learning and achievement,” Staples said. “We all understand the limitations of a single, point-in-time test. Some students who initially do not pass may have just had a bad day. And there are students who barely miss the benchmark and just need a little extra instruction in a particular area to achieve proficiency. For these students, an expedited retake offers another opportunity to demonstrate success before the end of the year.

That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But let’s be clear that we’re comparing apples with oranges when comparing 2013-2014 tests with 2014-2015 tests. It’s impossible to say, as VDOE does in its press release, that the results “represent significant progress in the commonwealth’s effort to better prepare students for success in college and careers.” No, it represents the effects of letting failing students re-take the test, which they could not do last year. It is impossible to conclude from this data that performance is actually improving, and to insinuate otherwise is pure political spin.

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9 responses to “Higher SOL Scores: Improved Student Achievement… or Bureaucratic Blarney?

  1. I have no problem to test to judge both teacher and student performance,but,having taught for a number of years, I believe the best use of resources would be to take kids,especially from poor areas and have them start school at an early age.It would be expensive in the short run,but I believe it would pay off as the students would be better prepared for jobs in a high tech economy.

    • there’s some interesting aspects to the idea that teachers be evaluated for performance.

      The first is – how do you do this without some kind of standardized methodology that requires all teachers to teach the same content and all kids tested in a standard way to see if they learned that content.

      that’s at odds with the current politics that oppose standardized curricula and testing.. i.e. teaching to the test and all that rot.

      next – the same folks who seem opposed to setting academic standards but in favor of evaluating public teachers for “accountability” say nothing at all about vouchers for private, charter, non-public school teachers…

      It’s like 3 mutually opposing concepts…

      we don’t want academic standards unless they can be used to evaluate teachers which then if we do that – we’ll use the results to justify giving vouchers so they can go to non-public schools that don’t use the same evaluation requirements used for public school teachers..

      how do you really understand what these folks are really after?

      Oh – and I’d SUPPORT non- public school vouchers IF we had teacher evaluation standards – across the board – with no problem at all.

      • Too many of us want Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

        There should be some electives in high school. Not every kid has the same needs and high school is a great time to try something different. But there is too much emphasis, especially in Fairfax County, in offering a wide variety of electives, when too many kids aren’t mastering the basics, which you need whether you are a surgeon or a master mechanic. Also, having very small classes for less popular electives has a negative impact on gen ed class sizes.

        I still wonder how much negative impact the drug culture has. Kids drank when I was in high school, but very few were drinking every day and using hard drugs.

        • Oh I don’t want ALL kids to be above average but I DO want OUR kids to be EQUAL to European, Asian, Australian/New Zealand kids when it come to getting our share of global jobs.

          I’m not opposed to electives especially if they are paid for by parents for their kids.

          What I’m opposed to is taxpayers buying amenity electives for college-bound kids while short-funding small class sizes for core academics for all kids and vocational education/job certification for kids not bound for 4-yr colleges.

          It’s about priorities and it’ s about using taxpayer money to power our economy , get our share of global jobs and reduce the number of poorly educated people who end up need taxpayer-funded entitlements.

          Our problem is that refuse to get our mind straight on what our education priorities should be – for the country – and for taxpayers.

          you give a kid a genuine opportunity at a real job and you reduce the number that find other things to busy themselves, like drugs and gangs, and worse.

          kids who have no hope – do the bad paths…

  2. I actually believe in second chances and, in fact, dialing down the high stakes environment … all together.. to one of assessments – periodic and individualized to pinpoint where help is needed.

    but lets’s also be clear about some things going on in today’s political environment.

    the political tide is going against the whole idea standardized teaching and testing…

    You hear it over and over -Standards are now “top-down, centrally-planned govt control”. that must be stopped and control returned to localities to decide what to teach and what standards to use.

    So I truly expect SOLs to go away given the politics.. and what the DOE is doing is trying to not give more reasons to do away with SOLs all together.

    We going to get what the critics have been advocating.. no standards beyond local ones.

  3. Pingback: PWCS SOL Scores Surpass State Averages - Bristow Beat : Bristow Beat

  4. The primary purpose of the taxpayer-funded public school system is to produce an employable workforce – that pays taxes, provides for their own and family needs and does not need entitlements.

    what has happened if that we’ve turned it into a de-facto college-prep “experience” for the parents that want their kids to go to college – and we’ve done it at the expense of a solid core-academic education for all kids since even the college-bound are seriously deficient in core academic skills (compared to their European and Asian counterparts) AND we have basically agreed to flush the kids not bound for college out of k-12 and into the economy without sufficient skills to earn a living.

    that’s the hard truth.

    we’ve turned our k-12 education system into an education “lite” institution that fails kids not bound for college and even many kids actually bound for college by providing them with a seriously deficient education that will not get most of them a job in the 21st century.

    we worry about entitlements .. those who can’t afford health care, kids who need free & reduced lunches, etc.. and we delude ourselves into thinking that vouchers for even less accountable non-public schools will fix it.

    We live in a world of denial on education.

    No amount of “economic development” will overcome a badly-educated workforce…

    also – does anyone else think that SOL improvement across the entire state – sounds a little fishy?

    like maybe – the way we going about testing SOLs – statewide – changed rather than almost every school in the state getting better?

    What should Virginia do? well.. not what we are doing right now.. for sure…

  5. does anyone else think that SOL improvement across the entire state – sounds a little fishy?

    You betcha!

    But ask VDOE for an apples to apples comparison of passing rates before applying the re-test results and see what they tell you.

    Also the schools know how to coach the students better. You notice I said coach and not teach.

    But there isn’t a district superintendent anywhere worth his salt who can’t wordsmith the results to show “improvement” in “some” school or group of students while hiding from the true results.

    • From the teachers point of view (of whom I know several) – they complain about how the test is administered as well as how some of the questions are worded.

      When I ask how to fix it – they are not of one mind except on the idea that some questions because of the way they are presented and worded need to prepare the kids to know how to better deal with the question.

      I don’t have a problem with that… to be honest – there are innumerable books, human and online tutoring for things like SAT and ACT and eve the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery… Medical boards, Professional Engineers Exam, etc.

      But I do object to the PR spin that emanates from DOE and local School systems who can’t seem to bring themselves to provide honest assessments of where we have made improvements and where we have not – and how we improve

      When you look at the SOLs – don’t look at the pass rate – look at the fail rate because those are kids headed for trouble and failure – and ultimately to become wards of the taxpayers. We COULD spend 20,000 more for each kid and still come out way ahead on the years and years of entitlements if they are graduated with a competent education.

      Why does the DOE and local Schools “spin” ? Well, because they are afraid of the current anti-public education, anti-standards, anti-testing political environment. They are doing everything they can to avoid being draw even further into the toxic “anti” environment.

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