The Gray Lady Backs School Testing

James Lane
Superintendent of Public Instruction

by James C. Sherlock

I wrote in a column not long ago that it will be impossible to create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if we cannot benchmark those losses and their subsequent mitigation.

I recommended standardized testing as the only readily available and proven way to take those measurements.

For most readers of this space, the concept that standardized testing (SOLs in the case of Virginia) is required this spring to establish a baseline for learning losses is simple common sense. For the national teachers unions and for much of the woke left, standardized testing is considered unfair to the poor, a vestige of systemic racism and a violation of dogma.

What is unfair to disadvantaged children is to mask their educational needs by burying the evidence.

That is why it is good to see that the editorial board of the New York Times, in this morning’s lead editorial, has written that we need standardized testing for benchmarking of learning losses.

(P)arents need to know where their children stand after such a sustained period without much face-to-face instruction. Given these realities, the new education secretary — whoever he or she turns out to be — should resist calls to put off annual student testing.

The Times, which considers every single thing a reason for federal action, is right in its instincts yet not fully focused on its targets.

Testing is something that Virginia and every state controls. States can be forced to test to receive federal education funding, as they are now for math and English reading and writing tests. But they cannot be mandated by the federal government to cancel testing.

The new federal COVID funds for schools should be used for measuring and mitigating COVID-related learning losses before they are used for anything else.

School boards will meet in every Virginia school district this month with the top of the agenda being learning losses. They need to know how they will benchmark the needs for mitigation in their districts and indeed in individual schools.

So waiting around to see if federal testing policy changes under a Biden administration, which it might under teachers union pressure, is not only not required; it is a mistake.

The Virginia Department of Education should immediately notify school districts that the full array of SOLs will be conducted in Virginia schools in the Spring.  They are owed that certainty so they can plan to help the most disadvantaged children among us.

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21 responses to “The Gray Lady Backs School Testing”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I can buy this although my kids are long out of school

  2. sherlockj Avatar

    Mine also. In fact, I will only have one grandchild left in Virginia schools after spring graduation of my oldest three.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    So we’re all in agreement that the testing is needed . Do we also need it for charter schools to prove that they can do a better job at teaching kids than the public schools?

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      Well, some of those tests will have to be modified to remove bias first.

      No questions dating back more than 4,000 years, for example.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Charter Schools are public schools. They are subject to state regulation.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The SOL tests will not be administered again this year. In December you will see some measurements made on schools that are the 4 by 4 block schedule. Most students will not be seated for an SOL test until spring 2022. So that takes into 2022 to 2023 before action can be taken based on data. That is the stone cold reality. If parents want to mitigate the disaster of last year and this year they are going to have to do it themselves.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Jay, currently the feds require math and English SOLs in the Spring. Even if that rule is rescinded, there is nothing that I know of that prevents Virginia from administering SOLs in the Spring. Do you have other information?

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Planning alone under current conditions make it impossible for testing coordinators and staff. I can only imagine the difficulties of actually administering the test. The you have to factor in accommodations for special education in the test administration. Testing coordinators pull their hair out over excessive snow days. Covid is the worst nightmare for them.

        The private schools practicing in person instruction have a tremendous advantage in data collection. Randolph Macon Academy is using Cognia to administer 3 rounds of standards based testing in the core subjects. The 3 testing sessions are spread out across the school year to give teachers data to track and the opportunity to modify future lessons to back fill gaps or expand ahead. Priceless. Well actually it cost me 20 grand.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    This is yet another great example of a message Virginia Republicans should be using right now. The Democrats are beholden to the teachers’ associations / unions, not the parents. There are a lot more parents than teachers. Put Terry McAuliffe on the spot – do you support administration of the SOLs in the Spring of 2021 or not?

    Where is Kirk Cox with this message?

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      I gave the input to Kirk Cox on his campaign website. Can’t make him use it.

  6. Matt Hurt Avatar
    Matt Hurt

    At this time, the official plan is to administer Virginia SOL tests this spring. Of course, the Board of Education could change this plan.

    I agree that we should test this spring, but it is for a different reason. If we do test, not every student would be tested. Students would be required to physically go into a school to take their tests. The reason for this is to maintain test security standards.

    The problem with this is that a percentage of our student body is missing in action. Overall state enrollment is down approximately 45,000 students as of September 30 from the almost 1.3 million students from the prior September. On top of that, there is a significant number of students who are currently on the roll who are not participating. Many of these students have historically had truancy issues, and when the option for online learning popped up, many of these families took this option to avoid the truancy process. Unfortunately these particular students are not participating, or are doing so minimally. For example, some divisions’ attendance policy require students to log into a Zoom session each day to be considered present. Some of these students log in, leave their camera turned off on their Chromebook, and simply haven’t turned in any of their work. Most of these students are considered economically disadvantaged, and a good percentage also are students with disabilities.

    Therefore, testing this spring will not inform anything at all about how many of our most at-risk students have faired in the time of Covid. If we do a student by student analysis comparing the 2019 data to the 2021 data, we will be able to get an idea of the effectiveness of different Covid educational strategies/policies at the division level for the kids who were present for testing and took an SOL test both those years.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      The only plan I know of is to administer the math and English (reading and writing) SOLs because they are currently required by the federal government to qualify for federal funding. Do you have other information?

      1. Matt Hurt Avatar
        Matt Hurt

        Science is also federally mandated, so those must be administered. Divisions have the option of administering the history SOL tests, or a local performance assessment.

        Our current history SOL tests really need to go. They do not measure skill, but simply determine who can regurgitate which discrete facts. Most folks will forget those facts soon enough, however, they can simply be Googled at any time. Being that my undergraduate degree was in history, I really believe that this is an important subject area. However, the method by which we’re assessing it via the SOL tests are worse than useless. When you hear people deride the SOL testing program because of the “kill and drill” method of instruction necessary to be successful, think history, as this is where a lot of the legitimate criticisms are based.

        The reading and math SOL tests are skill based, and while no test is flawless, we really need to place a little more importance on these. The way we should look at them is as a measure of minimal proficiency, and should strive for all students to at least meet that. Without those basic reading and math skills, students don’t have much hope of further academic progress.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      “On top of that, there is a significant number of students who are currently on the roll who are not participating.”

      School boards need to empower teachers to measure this. We need to know who is paying attention. The school teacher knows this answer. The data should be compiled and released to the public.

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Getting rid of history SOL tests is not a good idea. It will have big consequences. The Standards of Quality would be reformulated and reduce the number of history teachers and the contact time with social sciences. The SOL test for history keeps the subject relevant since it has some skin in the game. I have always thought that a 12th grade SOL Test should have been created and a mandatory pass requirement for US and VA Government.

    Mr. Hurt I do think that the SOLS will be rebranded and rolled out in a new form. The CRT and the politics associated with it will make it so. The only question is how long will the SOL eulogy be and how costly will be the SOL funeral.

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar
      Matt Hurt

      I don’t know that it will surely change the SOQ in that way. If you’ll remember, the middle school USI and USII history tests, science 3, history 3, and writing 5 SOL tests were canned about 5 years ago without any staffing changes per SOQ. What they’d do is to change the mandate from SOL test to locally developed performance task assessment.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        True for now. But a building principal is going to bump up those class sizes to free up an FTP for critical need area such as science, math or sped.

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar
          Matt Hurt

          That’s certainly a possibility. However, it may go that way anyway since History no longer figures into the school’s accreditation rating with the implementation of the 2017 SOAs.

          1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
            James Wyatt Whitehead V

            Such a shame. How in the world did history, government, and geography lose a seat at the table? It will be years before a reversal in course is considered.

          2. Matt Hurt Avatar
            Matt Hurt

            It’s been a shame how we have been assessing History for the last 20+ years. As evidenced by current events, very few folks have much understanding of the history of our country or how our Constitution was designed to thwart the over reach of government. The trivial pursuit type SOL tests we have administered since their implementation over 20 years ago have not helped this situation. We need to teach for understanding, not regurgitation of discrete facts. This is not to say that some history teachers don’t teach for understanding, but the SOL tests do not reward those efforts.

  8. SuburbanWoman Avatar

    Are school divisions planning on layoffs? If enrollment is down funding is decreased. Are divisions continuing to pay bus drivers even though the are not working and in many open districts parents are providing transportation.
    Are schools paying paraprofessionals who are actually not needed for one on one support?

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