- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

RICHMOND The Virginia Board of Education set the Standards of Learning tests back on strong ground Thursday by rejecting proposals most agreed watered down the requirements, while still allowing some flexibility.

The board took tentative action on a 79-page draft of its SOL regulations, reaffirming through straw votes that students need to pass six of 12 SOL tests, while allowing alternative but equally strenuous tests to count in place of particular SOL tests. A final vote on the regulations will come Friday.

"The bottom line is, to get the verification of accountability, you have to pass the test. We recommend that policies do everything possible to allow a student to pass a test, but the bottom line is you have to pass the test," said board member Jennifer Byler.

Virginia in the 1990s embarked on strengthening the set of skills and knowledge lawmakers and educators decided every student earning a Virginia high school diploma should have. The SOL tests measure how well students know the skills and information.

Students will have to pass two English tests, one math test, one science test, one social studies test and one other test of their choice to earn a standard diploma. To retain accreditation, schools will have to have a certain percent of students pass the tests generally 70 percent, with some exceptions.

Board members Thursday characterized their actions as "flexible but firm." In April, the board floated a number of proposals the tests' supporters argued watered down the system.

John Russell, a board member from Fairfax, agreed. "It's a lot different than April. It's a better document now as, to me, it goes back to where we started."

Board members expect these changes to stand, under which students will graduate and schools will earn accreditation. Among the major changes the board made Thursday:

• The removal of a waiver that would have let school boards create guidelines to award credit to a student whose grades in a course were good but who failed the SOL test.

• The addition of a set of tests such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or SAT II that can count in lieu of passing a particular SOL test. Members said those alternative tests are just as, and possibly more, rigorous than the SOL tests and cover the same materials required in the state's standards. By allowing those other tests, members said, they were proving the SOLs were not about a particular test but about showing students had mastered concepts and information. The board will now have to set what constitutes a passing grade on those alternative tests.

• Approval of a proposal to expedite retesting for students who fail a test but whose grades indicate they should have been expected to pass and they could show a reason, such as a death in the family, for performing poorly.

• Rejection of a proposal to allow a "basic diploma" for students unable to pass six SOL tests in high school. The board retained the current "modified standard diploma," but said it can only be given to special education students. Everyone else will have to achieve the standard diploma, by passing six tests, or the advanced studies diploma, by passing nine tests. Special education students may also earn one of the two higher diplomas.

• Allowing a three-year transition period for some students, as suggested by Republicans on Fairfax County's school board. They will still have to pass six tests and two will have to be in English, but the other four may be their choice, rather than requiring one each in math, social studies and science.

In Fairfax County where the tests have been criticized and a lawsuit was filed by a PTA organization trying to force the state to release the test questions there was mixed reaction.

"I was hoping they would give school boards flexibility," said Fairfax County School Board member Ernestine C. Heastie, who supported the override clause.

But her colleague on the board, Mychele B. Brickner, was pleased to see it go.

"I'm relieved that the basic accountability is there, because I felt some of these measures they were proposing would have reversed things a great deal," she said.

Board President Kirk T. Schroder disagreed with the characterization that the board was returning to a stronger set of principles, and said many people misunderstood what the board was trying to allow in those April proposals.

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