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The Standards of Learning (SOL) are a public school standardized testing program in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It sets forth learning and achievement expectations for core subjects for grades K-12 in Virginia's Public Schools. The standards represent what many teachers, school administrators, parents, and business and community leaders believe schools should teach and students should learn. The Virginia Department of Education, schools, and school systems routinely receive essential feedback on the effectiveness of implementation and address effective instructional strategies and best practices.
The Standards of Learning is supportive of and in direct response to No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. They address student achievement in four critical areas: (1) English, (2) mathematics, (3) science, and (4) history/social science. Students are assessed in English and mathematics in grades 3-8 and upon completion of certain high school level courses. Science and history SOLs are administered in grades 3, 5, and 8 and at the end of completing high school courses in these respective subjects.
In 2009, Kerri L. Briggs, Ph.D., head of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia, submitted an update to Patricia I. Wright, the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, regarding Virginia's status on the NCLB cornerstones and the effectiveness of the Standards of Learning.
In 1992, Virginia tried to adopt an education plan known as the Common Core of Learning. A largely parent-driven grassroots movement opposed the Common Core of Learning, arguing that it held no meaningful education plan and seemed to be putting more emphasis on behavioral issues than education issues. After a debate at Huguenot High School, the Common Core of Learning was discarded, to be later replaced by the Standards of Learning. The SOL were created through a process involving parents, teachers, and common citizens.
The SOLs became the springboard for adhering to the new No Child Left Behind law which was enacted in January 2002. They were used as the basis for evaluation of administration, teachers, and students in public schools.
In June 1995, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) approved the Standards of Learning in four core content areas: mathematics, science, English, and history and the social sciences. In September 1997, the Board of Education established new Standards for Accreditation (SOA) for public schools in Virginia that link statewide accountability tests to the SOL and hold students, schools, and school divisions accountable for results.
The results of the SOLs directly affect the schools that administer them as much as the students. If a certain passing rate is not met each year, the school can lose its accreditation. This sets higher standards for employment and puts more responsibility on teachers and administrators to focus on areas of learning that are fundamental to the Standards of Learning. The published results of the testing also help parents who are looking for schools with high achievement for their children, putting further pressure for success on school administrators and teachers.
Before the SOLs were implemented, the tests required to graduate affected the student, not the school. To graduate from high school, a student only needed to pass a sixth grade level test. As a result, 24-25% of new college freshmen needed remedial help. This level of literacy was unacceptable for the demands of the 21st century. The SOLs set the bar higher for test-oriented education and performance-driven results.
In 1998, the first year of SOL testing, only 2 percent of the Virginia Commonwealth’s public schools met the standard for full accreditation. The percentage of schools meeting the state’s accreditation standards increased to 6.5 percent in 1999, 22 percent in 2000, 40 percent in 2001, 64 percent in 2002, 78 percent in 2003, and 84 percent in 2004.
In October 2005, the state reported that 92 percent of the Commonwealth’s 1,834 schools received accreditation ratings for 2005–2006, with students meeting or exceeding state achievement objectives on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and other statewide assessments in the four core academic areas.
The VDOE stopped reporting statewide results in 2006. However, complete results of all assessments in grades 3-8 and end-of-course tests for fall, spring, and summer may be found on the School Report Cards.
On January 14, 2010, the Board of Education announced that personal learning plans will be created for each middle and high school student to align the student's course of study with academic and career goals. This revision was made to the Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Education has posted fact sheets detailing the timeline for changes, accreditation ratings, diploma requirements, and other documentation related to the SOLs. Annual reports regarding the condition and needs of public education in the Commonwealth of Virginia are also located on the Virginia Government Website.
A student must get 70 percent (raw score of 400) or higher on their SOL(s) in order to pass the test. A student's advancement to the next grade is not contingent on passing any SOL tests. Passing with 88% percent (500) is considered advanced/proficient. A perfect score is 600.
For students in grades 3-8, SOL scores are correlated to Lexile measures. A Lexile measure can be used to match readers with targeted text and monitor growth in reading ability. For more information concerning the SOL(s) and Lexile measures, visit http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/scoring/lexile/index.shtml
The Virginia Department of Education has created a guidebook titled, Limited English Proficient Students: Guidelines for Participation in the Virginia Assessment Program. The guidebook is intended to determine how a student with Limited English proficiency should participate in the SOL testing. LEP is an acronym coined from the NCLB Act; the term ELL is equivalent in Virginia. The guidebook also lists procedures for providing testing accommodations and exemption from certain SOL tests, with documentation procedures that must be followed in providing accommodations.
A student can participate in SOL testing in different ways:
It is important to note that all options have certain restrictions, such as grade-level, age, and English Language Levels as determined by WIDA.
List of accommodations:
The guidebook provides a chart of recommended accommodations based on a student’s WIDA level. In section V-3, the guidebook states, “While all LEP testing accommodations are available to all LEP students as deemed appropriate, not all LEP testing accommodations are equally helpful to all LEP students."
While accommodations can significantly improve the equality of SOL testing conditions, a number of issues surround their implementation. The VDOE guidebook states, "Testing accommodations provide LEP students the opportunity to be assessed on knowledge of content rather than on English language proficiency." However, it also states, “Students must take the test in English; translations of the test into different languages are not allowed.”
Audio versions of SOL tests may be beneficial for ELL students who struggle with reading. Still, because students are not exposed to this option in practice sessions during the school year, they are unable to use this function until actual testing. One anonymous teacher stated that because the students do not have practice using this tool, they disregard the option. The audio voice may not be of a tone they can comprehend and it seems more trouble than it is worth.
Plain English Tests are intended to help ELL students by reducing complex vocabulary. Some argue that this attempt leaves out language cues for ELL students by oversimplifying the language.
The main problems with providing accommodations revolve around the implementation or complete lack of accommodations. Many students will not use available accommodations because they do not want to appear as if they need special help. Other students may not be aware of the accommodation options.
All accommodations add extra work for ELL students to comprehend the questions, as more work is required to complete the same test as a native English speaker. For example, students may become tired or frustrated after using a bilingual dictionary many times for a single question.
There is a debate over whether ELL students should be held accountable in calculating Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), as test scores directly affect school funding and credibility under the NCLB Act.
If all students are held accountable and accommodations are not sufficient, this can hurt a school’s AYP. However, if schools are not held accountable, students might not receive sufficient instruction during the academic year.
The focus seems to be on providing and correctly implementing accommodations. In a South Carolina study indicated that students who received appropriate test accommodations, as recommended by a version of a computerized accommodation taxonomy for ELLs (the Selection Taxonomy for English Language Learners Accommodations, or STELLA), had significantly higher test scores than ELLs who received no accommodations or those who received incomplete or non-recommended accommodation packages.
The initial creation of the SOLs caused extensive debate around both the validity of the tests and the administration of the process. Debate became more heated by the Department of Education's and the Secretary of Education's refusal to reveal information about tests or how the tests were created. The Department of Education was concerned that releasing actual tests would encourage "teaching to the test," while parents and educators were concerned that tests would be poorly written and not test the targeted subject material.
Because teachers and administrators are evaluated based on students' SOL performance, there has also been concern that teachers will focus their teaching on SOL subject matter and omit much of the overall learning that is necessary in school.
On February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama announced a comprehensive review and evaluation of the existing No Child Left Behind law that drives the SOLs in Virginia. The news release explains that President Obama seeks to find a better way to judge schools, evaluate student growth and schools’ progress, and implement a better program focused on incentives and rewards. This evaluation will address many of the concerns and much of the controversy surrounding the NCLB law and will ultimately impact how the Commonwealth of Virginia administers the SOL tests.
Alternative assessments for the SOL tests include:
A new assessment will be offered in the 2010-2011 school year: The Virginia Modified Achievement Standards Test (VMAST) is an online alternative to the VGLA and VSEP.