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Superintendents across Virginia pushing for changes to standardized testing

By Amy Jo Martin, amartin@tidewaterreview.com

4:21 PM EDT, October 17, 2013

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“Virginia over-relies on standardized testing in our schools.”

This is the statement that school boards throughout the Commonwealth have sent to lawmakers.

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) reported on Wednesday that school boards from 29 school divisions – including New Kent, King William, and West Point – recently passed resolutions calling for a change in the state’s public accountability system.

The New Kent County and King William County school boards approved resolutions last month, while a resolution was adopted by the West Point School Board’s on October 15.

“As a school division, we are not opposed to standardized testing, but rather the over reliance on it for measuring student progress and student accountability. We recognize that the current assessment system does not effectively measure other important factors in a student's academic life such as creative thinking, problem solving, and other practical skills essential to competing as citizens of the world,” said West Point School Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Smith.

Although the King & Queen County School Board has not signed any resolutions expressing their concerns about standardized testing, Superintendent Stanley Jones said in a phone interview that he doesn’t see the Standards of Learning (SOL) testing or Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) as an effective way to teach students, and that he finds it counterproductive to the educational process.

The 29 school boards are encouraging lawmakers to:

•Reduce the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests taken by students in grades 3-11, which would eliminate over-testing.

•Include balanced assessments (in place of the SOL tests), which could more accurately determine growth in student achievement.

•Use more “reliable and valid measures” of students’ knowledge and application of analytical and problem-solving skills necessary for the future.

•Better prepare students for college and careers.

•Allow failing students to retake tests when they are ready, rather than waiting months to test.

•Take into consideration a “number of important factors” when evaluating teachers, administrators, and schools, rather than over-emphasizing SOL test results.

Doing so would “nurture the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students,” the New Kent County School Board said in its signed resolution.

Alan Seibert, Superintendent of Salem City Schools and President of VASS, said in a press release that he believes “it’s time to change the status quo of using 20th Century assessments…and ensure that students acquire 21st Century skills.”

“The state’s current system of testing every student 34 times between grades 3-11 is as onerous as it surely is expensive, and efforts to use this one type of test for two purposes by means of a statistical approximation of student progress is seriously flawed," he asserted, adding that, "students and parents in Virginia deserve authentic measures of individual student growth and teachers deserve access to new tools that demonstrate the progress that their students are making."

The 29 school divisions that have signed the resolution include:

–AlbemarleCounty

–AppomattoxCounty

–BristolCity

–CharlottesvilleCity

–ClarkeCounty

–Colonial Heights

–CovingtonCity

–CumberlandCounty

–FauquierCounty

–FrederickCounty

–GloucesterCounty

–Greensville/Emporia

–HalifaxCity

–KingWilliam County

–MiddlesexCounty

–New Kent County

–PrinceEdward County

–PrinceWilliam County

–RappahannockCounty

–RichmondCounty

–SalemCity

–ScottCounty

–SmythCounty

–StauntonCity

–TazewellCounty

-West Point

–WestmorelandCounty

–Williamsburg/James City

–YorkCounty 

Steve Staples, the former superintendent of York County Schools and the current VASS Executive Director, explained that other areas and organizations throughout Virginia, as well as the nation, are concerned about the standardized testing.

“The momentum is growing in the state to revamp the system as many more school boards are considering adopting resolutions, major education organizations in the state are organizing to promote these changes together, local chambers of commerce are considering their own resolutions, and members of the General Assembly are beginning to listen,” he said.

“We are seeing similar rejections of the over-use of testing in other states across the country – states like Texas and Connecticut.” 

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) developed the SOL testing, which focuses on English, math, science and history/social science, in 1998. That year, only two percent of the state’s schools met the standard for full accreditation. The percentage continued to increase through 2005, when 92 percent of Virginia schools passed the test. The VDOE stopped reporting statewide results in 2006, however it still posts the school report cards on its website.

The SOL testing was a primary focus when the No Child Left Behind Act, was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2001.

The No Child Left Behind Act was intended to give all children a fair and equal opportunity to obtain a higher quality education and prepare them for the future. In doing so, the U.S. Department of Education required that each state establish a timeline for the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading/language arts and mathematics, to ensure that all students with 12 years of schooling, starting with the 2001-2002 school year, meet the state’s standards.

The AYP also looked at the schools’ graduation rates.

The Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) replaced AYP in 2012, and, like AYP, also focused on reading and math scores in certain subgroups, such as economically disadvantaged, minorities, and mentally handicapped students.

Under the AMO requirements, schools must develop and implement improvement plans to raise the achievement of student subgroups not meeting annual objectives. Low-performing schools identified as “Priority and Focus” schools have to follow certain guidelines, such as convening a school leadership team that meets monthly and using Indistar, an online school improvement tool.

This past school year, New Kent, King William, and West Point schools were three of the 36 schools – out of 132 Virginia school divisions – that reached full accreditation based on SOL testing and AMOs.

King and Queen County's two elementary schools both achieved full accreditation, while the high school missed the mark in the subject of mathematics.

Central High School was one of 395 schools that received a rating of "Accredited with Warning."

According to the 2013-14 results released September 20, CHS scored an 81 in English, a 63 in mathematics, a 75 in history, and a 72 in science.

CHS received a provisional rating for its graduation and completion index (GCI).

A GCI of at least 85 is required for full accreditation and CHS scored an 84.

According to the VDOE, high schools are eligible for a provisional rating until 2015-16. After that, the schools with a GCI of less than 85 will be accredited with warning and must undergo an academic review.

Although a total of 77 percent of Virginia's 1,828 schools are fully accredited, the number of schools accredited with a warning nearly quadrupled this year and six schools have been denied accreditation because of chronically low achievement.

Frances Hubbard contributed to this story.

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.