- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

The Virginia Department of Education will try out on-line demonstrations of the Standards of Learning tests at nine high schools around the state early next year.

Schools selected to participate in the demonstration will be announced within the next few days.

Superintendent of Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary last week approved three companies to develop the demonstration projects, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Department of Education. They are BTG Inc., NCS Pearson Inc., and Vantage Learning Inc.

The tests, to be administered to students from the selected schools, will be made up of previously released SOL test questions.

The Department of Education aims to put the tests on line by 2003 in high schools around the state. When implemented, Virginia will become the first state to administer a statewide K-12 test on line, said Cam Harris, assistant superintendent for assessment and reporting.

"Virginia has been a leader all along in technology and the use of the Internet," Mr. Pyle said.

"This [on-line testing] fits into that."

The SOLs, administered in the state since 1998, are given to elementary students in grades three, five, eight and to high school students. By 2007, if 70 percent of the students in a school do not pass the SOLs, the school will lose its accreditation.

Schools can administer the tests on site to students and get immediate results, Miss Harris said.

"The system would be flexible," she added.

Currently, it takes weeks for school divisions to get results on the SOLs, which are scored by a private company contracted by the state.

On-line testing will facilitate early retesting of students, especially with a view to a state-set 2004 deadline after which all high school students will have to pass the SOLs in order to graduate.

On-line testing also will enable school divisions to administer the tests later in the school year. Board officials say it will lead to the development of test formats other than the current, much-criticized multiple-choice format.

There is, however, a catch in this rosy scenario: funding.

On-line testing is part of a larger Web-based SOL Technology Initiative, which seeks to used Web-enabled systems to improve SOL instructional, remedial and testing capabilities at high schools.

In March, the Virginia General Assembly established a fund of nearly $114 million over two years in support of the Web-based initiative.

Under current guidelines, the Department of Education will provide $26,000 to each eligible high school for the on-line initiative. Remaining funds would have to come from within the school divisions.

In August, superintendents of all school divisions in the state signed a statement about their willingness to participate in the on-line initiative, which appears to have wide support among school board members.

"This will reduce the lag time" between testing and results, said Fairfax County School Board member at-large, Rita Thompson.

Others, like Jane Strauss, county School Board member from the Dranesville district, agreed that on-line testing is an excellent idea, but said she is worried about the costs associated with it.

"Right now, the state provides just one-sixth of the cost of technology," she said, not including the cost of on-line testing. Keeping this in mind, the 2003 date "probably" is too close, she said.

On-line testing, she pointed out, came as a package. "Part of the challenge is not just raising money to buy machines, but also providing Internet access, replacing obsolete machines," she said.

The costs involved in on-line testing already are prompting some state education officials to look at alternatives like regional testing, which will provide schools with quick results by allowing individual school divisions to score the tests.

Last month, the state board's Accountability Advisory Committee approved a resolution recommending regional decentralized testing to the board, and also expressed a continued interest in on-line testing.

Jennifer Curtis Byler, member of the state Board of Education and chairman of the board's Accountability Advisory Committee, said she would present the resolution on regional testing to the Board of Education at its Jan. 11 meeting.

"It is very difficult for school divisions to develop infrastructure for on-line testing," Mrs. Byler said, adding that the costs of on-line testing are "a bit staggering."

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