- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

Students in Virginia made significant gains in algebra and English, but continued to lag in history in the Standards of Learning tests administered in May this year.

Releasing the statewide results yesterday, Gov. James S. Gilmore III said students had made double-digit gains in the passing rates of 17 of the 27 SOL tests since the tests were first administered in 1998.

"This is very encouraging. It is a very big improvement," said Mark Christie, a member of the Virginia Board of Education.

"Teachers around the state are telling me that the increased focus on instruction and the additional instructional resources and training are helping them help their students learn more," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary.

SOLs are standardized tests administered to students in grades 3, 5, 8 and in high school, and were first introduced in 1998 as part of a massive reform effort to raise education standards in the state. Categories for testing include English, math, history, social science and science. Grades 5 and 8 also have tests in computers and technology.

Critics of the SOLs say schools depend too heavily on the standardized tests to evaluate student performance, and that the tests force teachers to teach to the tests instead of focusing on students' creativity.

The biggest gain in the state came in Algebra II scores for high school students up by 27 percent since 1998. History and social science also showed gains, albeit more modest.

But scores for Grade 5 English and science and high school biology dropped by a small percentage since last year.

Officials said they were especially pleased with the algebra results, which "many naysayers" had predicted would be a stumbling block for students, said Kirk Schroder, president of the Virginia Board of Education.

The algebra passing rate "indicates student progress at the most important level," he said.

Mickey Vanderwerker, president of Parents Across Virginia United For SOLs, a group that opposes the current format of SOLs, said that the upward trend in test results was not an indicator of how well students were doing.

"Test scores usually go up the first couple of years. It doesn't mean education is better and children are learning more," she said.

She said that while the group was not opposed to standardized testing, there were problems with how the scores were computed. "Standardized tests should be just one piece of the puzzle about what is happening with kids," she said.

Supporters of the SOLs, however, said that the climbing scores prove the state did the right thing in the first place by introducing the tests.

Former Gov. George F. Allen, a supporter of the SOLs, said yesterday in a prepared statement that the test results "demonstrate that the high academic standards and accountability reforms the most enduring education accomplishment of my administration as governor are working, leading our students to learn more than ever before."

Details were not available yesterday on how many schools in Virginia would gain accreditation as a result of their performance on the SOLs this year. Schools need to have a passing rate of 70 percent or more by the state-set 2007 deadline, or risk losing accreditation.

History, which is the subject that has most worried school officials, continued to have the lowest passing rate of all four subject areas, despite double-digit gains at all grade levels since 1998.

For instance, Grade 5 history and social science had a passing rate of 51 percent, while Grade 8 history had a passing rate of only 50 percent. High school U.S. history passing rates were as low as 39 percent this year.

Board of Education member Mark Christie said history was the subject for which schools were finding it hardest to improve passing rates because of a lack of alignment between the SOLs and the history curriculum taught in schools.

"We will be working on revising the history SOLs and will put out materials on history resources to help schools," he said.

Audit teams would be appointed to work with schools having difficulty meeting the standards, said Department of Education spokesman Jim Calleran. "We have a high level of confidence that all schools will meet the accreditation standard" by the 2007 deadline, he said.

Of the students who took the tests in Virginia this year, 389,225 students passed the English SOLs, 232,431 passed history and social sciences, and 305,939 passed science. Roughly 500,000 students took the tests, Mr. Schroder said.

Results for individual school divisions were not available yesterday. Locally, Arlington released its SOL scores in August, but Alexandria and Fairfax have yet to release theirs. Scores in Fairfax could be available in about a week's time, a county schools spokesman said.

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