Public School Accountability Compromised Again

James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

by James A. Bacon

Having scrapped the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams for Virginia public school students during the COVID-19 spike last spring, the Virginia Department of Education plans to relax its standardized testing requirements again this spring. In addition, school divisions will be given “greater flexibility” in awarding students credits towards graduation.

“The waivers and emergency guidance will simplify the logistics of SOL testing this year and ensure that COVID-19 pandemic does not unduly prevent any student from earning a diploma,” said State Superintendent James Lane in a press release yesterday. “The Board of Education and I are also creating opportunities for school divisions to create multiple pathways for students to demonstrate content mastery while prioritizing health and safety.”

Most would agree that Virginia public school officials find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The epidemic has been disastrous for learning. School districts have alternated between full in-person teaching in the schools to hybrid in-person/online learning to completely online learning. Confusion has prevailed as school boards are tugged between competing concerns of teachers, students, parents and public health authorities. Under the circumstances, there are no easy answers. It is, to be fair, a no-win situation.

That said, the decision to water down testing and graduation criteria will have major deleterious consequences. Not only has student learning been compromised by the COVID upheaval, now educators and the public will find it harder to evaluate how much damage was done. It will be all but impossible to hold schools and districts accountable for sub-par performance.

Here, specifically, is what the Virginia Department of Education plans to do. SOL tests will be allowed for school districts that choose to administer them. For those that don’t, elementary and middle school students may take “local assessments” instead of SOL tests in history, social science and English writing under waivers and emergency guidance. Performance data for those tests will be forwarded to the state. However, grades 3 through 8 will be required to take SOL tests for English and math, which are required under federal rules that the U.S. Department of Education is not likely to suspend.

Additionally, the Board of Education approved emergency guidance allowing school divisions more flexibility in awarding verified credits and reducing the need for students to return to school buildings to retake end-of-course SOL assessments. Lane also waived a cap on the number of locally awarded verified credits a school division may issue during the course of a year.