- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III has weighed in on the state's Standards of Learning tests, telling Board of Education members in a letter yesterday he expects them to retain passing scores as a graduation requirement.

The news comes as Arlington County school officials yesterday released an accounting of their students' performance on this year's tests. Nine to 13 Arlington county schools are likely to get accreditation this year after more students scored higher on the Standards of Learning tests.

The final number, however, will depend on the state board's approval of some recommended changes on accreditation standards, said Robert Smith, superintendent of Arlington County schools.

The board will discuss those and other changes to the SOL tests today. The discussions are likely to continue until tomorrow, when the board will vote on final guidelines.

Board members and administration officials predict the board will strengthen the tests, turning back proposals from its April meeting that would have watered down the requirements.

At the same time, the board will allow some exceptions for students who will be in seventh, eighth or ninth grades this fall a transition group who didn't have the benefit of strong standards in elementary school. The tests were first administered in the spring of 1998 as part of a reform effort to raise the education standards in the state.

The tests' supporters had eagerly awaited the governor's letter, hoping he would tell the board to keep strong standards.

Mr. Gilmore did just that, approving of the flexibility for the transition group but encouraging the board to reject calls to eliminate science and history tests for third grade.

He also supported the idea of allowing substitute tests, like the Advanced Placement U.S. History test, instead of requiring students to pass the actual SOL test for the same material.

Beginning in 2004, high school students will be required to pass six SOL tests in order to graduate. By 2007, schools where fewer than 70 percent of the students pass risk losing their accreditation. The tests in English, science, math and social studies are given to students in third, fifth and eighth grades, as well as secondary students taking certain courses.

Releasing the scores for 1999-2000, Mr. Smith said he was pleased with the county's performance, and credited good plans focusing on learning, teachers' performance and a supportive community for the higher scores.

"All these elements are in place here, and therefore we are seeing an improvement," he said.

Overall, pass rates for the county increased from the previous year on 16 of the 27 tests.

The largest one-year increase was seen in grade five history, which improved by more than 10 percentage points. Improvements also were seen on math scores, but world history scores dropped. School officials said this could be because of a dramatic increase in the numbers of test takers in the subject over last year.

Schools that had a pass rate of more than 70 percent in all subjects this year were Long Branch, Glebe, McKinley, Nottingham, Taylor, Ashlawn, Arlington, Patrick Henry, Taylor and Tuckahoe, all elementary schools.

Arlington Traditional, which along with Key and Jamestown elementary was among the three schools accredited last year, continued to show a pass rate of more than 90 percent in all tests. The school had a pass rate of 100 percent for its fifth-grade English writing, math and technology tests.

"We concentrate on individual kids," Holly Hawthorne, principal of Arlington Traditional, said about the school's strategy. "Our teachers and students work hard every day" to improve performance, she said.

But even as they celebrated the results, administrators and board members sounded a note of caution.

School Board Chairman Libby Garvey said that although she was pleased with the results, "it is important not to teach to the tests."

"Children need to know what to learn in life. It is a huge mistake to worry about what child will fail," she said.

Teachers need to "teach for meaning," Mr. Smith said, adding that students taught by such teachers usually performed as well on SOLs and better on tests requiring advanced thinking.

He said they were thankful for the Virginia state board proposal allowing more flexibility on how students are held accountable.

In Alexandria, officials released early estimates of the schools' performance last week, reporting that the county made significant progress over 1999 SOL scores in all subtests except third-grade math and eighth-grade science.

Official state results in Alexandria will not be available until late July.

Fairfax County results will be released late this month or in early August.

Kitty Porterfield, a spokeswoman for Fairfax schools, said officials were pleased with early indications.

"It is hard to get any kind of estimate in such a big school system … there has been a lot of effort to improve results. People are anticipating significant progress."

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