Did the State Reduce the Rigor of Math SOLs?

Last year the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) approved new math tests for the Standards of Learning (SOLs) exams. Due to the change in content, educators had to evaluate how many questions students need to answer correctly in order to be counted as “pass proficient” or “pass advanced.”

This spring the school board voted to adopt math cut scores that were significantly lower than those initially recommended in the process. The VBOE in its March 2019 meeting led one board member to voice concern that the action would feed the public perception that the state was reducing the “rigor” of the test. 

Said board Vice President Diane T. Atkinson: “I have a concern. … The distance between what would maintain previous rigor and where we are going is significant from my perspective.” The board had endured criticism previously when it eliminated some tests required for accreditation in order to focus on “deeper learning,” she said. “I am concerned this will add fodder to that conversation.”

The board’s action raises important questions, Atkinson said: Was the old test excessively rigorous? If not, will the new cut scores ensure that the new tests are as rigorous as the old tests? Or, she asked, “Are we going to send a message that we’re moving things back?”

The setting of standards for the new math test was an elaborate, multi-stage process. Teachers and curriculum content specialists for each grade convened to determine how many questions students are likely to answer correctly. Taking into account the concepts students need to master in order to succeed in the next grade, the 10- to 15-person teacher committees set “cut scores,” or minimum scores, for each grade. An “articulation” committee reviewed the “cut scores,” and then the state school superintendent weighed in with his own recommendations.

The first column in the table at the top of this post shows the number of questions in the old math tests in grades 3 through 8 that students had to answer correctly in order to achieve “pass/proficient” status. The next column shows the initial scores recommended by psychometricians with the state’s testing- assessment consultants to maintain rigor of the new tests. The other three columns show recommendations at various stages of the standards-setting process, including those of Superintendent James Lane, whose recommendations were approved by the board.

The 3rd grade math SOL poses 40 questions formatted for computer testing. The 4th – 8th grade tests pose 50 questions. Under the new board-approved standards, students can score pass/proficient even if they answer four to six fewer questions correctly than in the old test.

In contrast to the massive re-working of the “proficient” standards, changes to “advanced” standards were minimal.

Bacon’s bottom line: Atkinson is absolutely right: The board action should feed public worries that the state has reduced the rigor of the math SOLs. If no one is upset by the decision, that’s probably because the decision was never reported by the media, so no one knows about  it.

The big question is whether the relaxation of test standards was politically driven. The pass/proficient rate for math SOLs has been consistently lower than for other subjects in recent years. The low pass rate is an embarrassment to many school administrators and a threat to the accreditation of many schools. Feeding the suspicion that the process was driven by politics is the fact that the board made so few changes to the pass/advanced cut scores. While high pass/advanced scores are desirable, lower scores do not threaten school accreditation and cause the political heartburn that low pass/proficient scores do.

Here’s the danger: If the VBOE relaxed standards excessively, students, parents, teachers, and administrators will get an unrealistic view of student achievement. Students could advance into higher grades unprepared to master more advanced mathematical concepts, and failing schools could escape accountability.

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13 responses to “Did the State Reduce the Rigor of Math SOLs?

  1. Welcome to Lake Woebegon – where all the children are above average. (I miss Garrison Keillor – if I have to put up with Justin Fairfax still, can I have Keillor back now?)

  2. This crime against bright kids is real simple to figure out. Since substantially more than half of our kids don’t want to learn rigorous math, we will pretend they do want to learn it, and pretend to teach it, while we do not such thing, so no one learns rigorous math. That way all of our math teaching problems go away. Since, we have already done away with rigorous reading and writing, and speaking clearly with nuance and precision, we can swing ignorance now full circle, and teach complete ignorance all around so everyone is equal.

  3. Having spoken to my in-house expert, this may be a bit more subtle than Jim realizes. This new teaching/testing technology where the computer algorithm picks the questions based on previous answers has really changed all this, and makes cut scores set in stone less relevant. I’m not saying games aren’t being played, and the effort to design tests that make the public happy is an old one, but this might not be a straight change in the standards.

  4. I just don’t see nefarious motives here and I do give credit for some level of transparency and way more than we get for those non-public schools the critics keep claiming are “better”.

    The sad truth on some material – is that neither parents nor the kids actually want “more” rigor. It makes the kids feel bad and they end up with a “record” of academic struggles and failure!

    They argue – and it’s been in BR on prior tomes – that “high stakes testing” is actually “harmful”.

    So there is more than a certain level of damned if you do and damned in you don’t.

    My dental hygienist informed me that her son is in an advanced AP curriculum – but then he failed to math SOLs. How does THAT happen? I asked how he got into AP in the first place if his SOLs were not good and she said they are “separate” things. Holy Moly!

    The public schools and VDOE are caught on this. The parents want their kids to have a “record” of success so they can use that to get better opportunities for other/future programs/college/etc.

    So they just don’t want their kids to get “dinged” from bad scores that then affects future opportunities. Mind you this has nothing what-so-ever – in their minds -whether their kid ends up prepared for a solid job at some point in their future.

    On the other end of the spectrum with at-risk kids living in economic distress with parents who are also not well educated – well that puts even more pressure on the schools.

    My “in-house expert” tells me that invariably a kid of a well-educated, well-employed parent will do well academically whereas kids of less-well educated parents – typically do not excel, often struggle – and as a teacher trying to get an entire class – SOL-ready, what do you do?

    Don’t tell me that public school teachers have “cushy” jobs, work only 9 months, and get hefty salaries – well you can.. but it’s not a good thing.

  5. My “in-house expert” put in more hours and more stress in her career than I ever did, and did more good for the commonweal. If you’ve been reading my comments for a while, you’ve seen me make that point before. Teachers rule. Pay was a downside but now there’s VRS. 🙂

  6. Want a job? How about a starting salary of $55,000 per year with two months of vacation per year? If you stay on the job for 30 years, your pay will be over $100,000 per year. You can retire at age 57 with an annual income equal to 75% of your final annual salary. When Social Security starts, your retirement income will increase to 100% of the final annual salary. Do you want the job? Become of Fairfax County teacher.

    • re: Fairfax – try that concept in the rest of RoVa… where your salary and benefits will be nowhere near Fairfax.

      The AVERAGE starting teacher salary in Virginia – is $40,453.

      All I can say – is try teaching as a profession and then come back and talk about what a cushy job it is.

      It’s a tough job – if you can keep a classroom of 15-25 kids under control and enable most of them to pass the SOLs – you’re doing something most folks cannot do – no matter how much they get paid.

      Simply said, teaching is not for most folks.

      • But look at the difference in cost of living between Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria and the rest of the state. My spouse and I recently purchased a house for use as a rental property in Prince William County. It’s newer and larger than our house in McLean, but cost only about 1/3 of what we paid in 2008 for our current house. What if we’d purchase the rental house in Spotsylvania County?

        Teachers living in RoVA must expect to earn less than if they taught in NoVA.

  7. I did teach, albeit at the college level. College salaries were low in those days, but it was during the Viet Nam war, when students were rebellious. I know what teaching demands, but I really liked the two months of vacation. I also currently teach high-school students at our church and tutor others in math. Again, I enjoy the two months of vacation. I know what it takes. The BLS reports that teachers work 50 hours per week (during the school year), which is what the BLS reports for most professionals.

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