New Rules Make Year-to-Year SOL Comparisons Impossible

James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

Fewer Virginia students will take end-of-course Standards of Learning (SOL) tests this spring due to revised regulations approved by the state Board of Education last year, making it impossible to compare school pass rates this year with the pass rates of previous years.

“This is a dramatic change in testing patterns,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release announcing the changes this morning. Pass rates for end-of course SOL tests in mathematics, science and history for 2018-2019 will mark the beginning of new trend lines, he added. “Comparing 2018-2019 pass rates with performance in 2017-2018 would be an apples-to-oranges exercise.”

The change comes after two years of falling SOL scores and revisions to Virginia Department of Education criteria for school accreditation. A third year of declining scores, especially in predominantly African-American schools, would have proved embarrassing for an educational establishment that has promised to narrow the white-black academic performance gap. It also would have called into question the efficacy of policies that de-emphasize traditional disciplinary policies in favor of a counseling-intensive, social justice approach.

“The Board of Education sees value in limiting the number of high-stakes assessments required to earn a diploma and in allowing students to demonstrate content knowledge through performance-based assessments,” Board of Education President Daniel Gecker said. “The revised graduation requirements maintain high expectations for learning while providing more flexibility for teachers in delivering instruction and more opportunities for students to develop life skills useful beyond school.”

The VDOE press release explains the changes:

The new graduation requirements became effective with students who entered the ninth grade in the fall of 2018 (class of 2022). The number of standard credits for a Standard Diploma and for an Advanced Studies Diploma remained the same, but the number of required verified credits — earned by passing a course in the content area and passing the associated end-of-course SOL test — was reduced to five (one each in English reading, English writing, mathematics, science and history/social science) for both diplomas.

In addition, all high school students are no longer required to take end-of-course SOL tests if they have already earned a verified credit in the subject — unless additional testing in mathematics or science or both is required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA. The federal law requires annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Students must also test in science at least once in elementary school, at least once in middle school and at least once during high school.

“This year marks a major step toward the creation of a balanced assessment system that supports classroom innovation while maintaining accountability for improving outcomes for students,” said Lane.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, what does this mean? The press release doesn’t come close to answering all the questions I have.

But two things are clear enough. First, fewer students will take the SOLs. Students who qualify for opting out are those who have already earned a verified credit in the subject area, which implies (1) that fewer qualified students will take the tests, and (2) that the pass rate for those who do test (those who did not already earn a verified credit) will be lower. Comparing average pass rates this year with last year would, as Lane suggests, compare apples with oranges.

Very convenient.

Second, schools will rely more upon “performance-based assessments,” whatever they are. Pardon me for suspecting that (1) such assessments will vary from school district to school district, if not school to school, (2) a higher percentage of students will be deemed to meet grade requirements, and (3) once standards are lowered sufficiently, the black-white performance gap will miraculously shrink.

What do schools gain in exchange for the loss in accountability? That’s not quite clear, but the press release offers hints. “It is really exciting to travel around the state and see how teachers are taking advantage of this opportunity to engage their students in real-world challenges that promote deeper learning across the curriculum.

So… students will be getting “deeper learning.”  And how will we know if such “deeper learning” is taking place?

We won’t.

The biggest losers, of course, will be African-American kids stuck in failing schools and fooled into thinking they’re getting a real education.

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11 responses to “New Rules Make Year-to-Year SOL Comparisons Impossible

  1. Pretty much gonna take away the critics weapons! Oh GAWD!

    I’d be more sympathetic if said critics also wanted to use similar “accountability” for the non-public schools they advocate for rather than just tear down the public school system.

    but FYI:

    “What are performance-based assessments?

    In general, a performance-based assessment measures students’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge learned from a unit or units of study. Typically, the task challenges students to use their higher-order thinking skills to create a product or complete a process

    Performance assessment, also known as alternative or authentic assessment, is a form of testing that requires students to perform a task rather than select an answer from a ready-made list.”

    That’s would seem to add MORE work to teaching which makes me suspicious as to what the criteria for “success” is or is not – or is the subjective view of the teacher in the absence of “answer sheets” to quickly grade papers.

  2. Indeed, no SOL required at the rapidly-growing private school in my neighborhood, and no push by anybody to impose it. Many of those parents are happy to leave that behind. But the public educational establishment also does have a long history of thwarting efforts at longitudinal tracking, in its continued march away from accountability and toward the Lake Wobegon Ideal (all the children above average.) That is part of what is going on here.

  3. The educational establishment does not want accountability. Maybe SOLs are not the best test and measure but then where is the substitute from educators? More money, more money, more money.

  4. The educators want zero accountability. Parents will be told, as they are now, that their children are doing very well. The parents are thereby put to sleep.

  5. So what I don’t understand is why private schools are trusted to do the job without any accountability and don’t need SOLs but public schools are not.

    How do the parents of kids in private school know that their kids are getting a good education?

    So if the stated was going to allow vouchers to send at-risk kids to private schools – how would we know that they were being well educated?

    • Private schools are accountable to parents in a way that public schools or not. If parents think their kid’s education stinks, they can pull him out and stop paying tuition. Money talks, B.S. walks.

      • How would they know – any more or less than public school?

        If we would allow vouchers to send kids to private schools – would we still not want accountability for them either and let parents decide if they are getting a “good” education?

        Why would we advocate for vouchers if there is no accountability?

  6. From what I have seen, the private schools work closely with the parents, so the parents know what is being taught and they can see the tests. Not so, in public schools. Many parents these days are well enough educated to know if what is being covered is important.

  7. Private schools are accountable; they have the ultimate test of getting their kids into colleges. And parents know the college admissions statistics (or can easily learn them) and then, as Jim says, they can pull their kid(s) out and send them to another school. Yes, public schools face the same test in theory, but many of their kids are not college-prep, statistics on those that are won’t be reported separately, and in any case dissatisfied parents cannot choose their school district (except by moving to a new home).

    Nevertheless, I agree with Larry, private school students should be subject to the same testing. If that shames the pubic schools so be it. And there are private schools that cut corners and need to be held accountable.

  8. I don’t have a problem with having a statewide test that applies to all schools. But it won’t bring accountability. A number of private schools, many of which will have the same poor but motivated students on scholarship, outshine the public schools. The response – more money.

    The educational establishment does not want to be held accountable.

  9. Private schools are of course subject to the same college admission tests, and some have their own testing systems in place. They are also accountable to accreditation agencies. Some – but not all – participate in academic test programs or competitions with the public schools – math competitions for example. Those are usually voluntary. But in general private schools do not rush out seeking to make the direct comparison with public schools and (here’s the insight, so pay attention) would NOT fare as well as you think in comparison with the best of the public school gifted and magnet programs (think Maggie Walker, Nova’s TJ.) Many people turn to private schools because they want a deeply religious curriculum, or to escape from perceived failures of the public system unrelated to academics.

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