- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

Virginia lawmakers want to provide a safety net for students and schools that fail to meet the Standards of Learning requirements, in response to criticism the tests will play too big a role in assessment.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators are working on bills that introduce the concept of "multiple criteria." The SOLs are set to become the sole criteria for graduation in 2004 and school accreditation in 2007.

A special House subcommittee is working on a bill that seeks to introduce multiple criteria for the accreditation of schools. The subcommittee was formed after a public hearing in November in which critics, including some legislators, spoke out against the 2004 graduation requirement.

Delegates L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat; James H. Dillard, Fairfax Republican, and John S. Reid, Henrico Republican, are working on bills that will seek to incorporate requirements other than the SOLs for high school graduation. Delegates Barnie K. Day, Patrick Democrat, and John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, have already introduced bills on multiple criteria for student assessment.

Delegate Thomas M. Jackson, Carroll County Democrat, has submitted a bill to use multiple criteria for school accreditation.

Miss Darner's bill will seek to give high school students who fail the SOLs another chance, like taking an essay test.

"Everybody is upset that the test can be the only way a student can graduate," Miss Darner said.

Under current state mandates, high school students who do not pass the SOL tests will not be able to graduate, beginning in 2004. That year, more than 98,000 high school students in the state will be affected by the requirement.

Beginning in 2007, schools where at least 70 percent of the students do not pass the SOLs will lose accreditation. If that requirement were currently in place, only 22 percent of the state's schools would be fully accredited.

Critics of the SOLs say they are worried that making the tests the sole criteria for graduation could push up the number of dropouts.

"The closer we get to 2004, the greater is the danger of more children being damaged," said parent and activist Mickey VanDerwerker, who heads the 5,000-member group Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, a member of a special education subcommittee that is working on a multiple-criteria bill, said that could well become the session's top education issue.

"We would like to be responsive to the school board and to parents' concerns that the SOLs have too much of a high-stakes standing," he said.

He added that it was likely that the bills being submitted by Miss Darner, Mr. Dillard and Mr. Reid would be combined with the subcommittee bill to create a single bill addressing both school accreditation and individual student achievement.

Under the Hamilton bill, the SOLs would count for just 50 percent of the accreditation process, with student-completion rates, reduction of the racial-disparity gap, student-dropout rates, and Stanford 9 scores weighing in as additional criteria.

Mrs. VanDerwerker said that all legislation that is currently proposed "still seems to rate the SOLs too highly."

"It does not address the real issue; that is, the overreliance and misuse of the test results," she said. She also said she was "pretty hopeful something is going to happen," adding that the legislature would not let it go forward with the thousands of children participating in the 2004 SOLs.

Parent groups like Mrs. VanDerwerker's have been among the most vocal critics of the graduation requirement. On an oral invitation from Mr. Hamilton, her group sent a letter recommending changes they would like to see in the SOLs.

It recommended that evaluations of student achievement in the SOLs should be based primarily on multiple, ongoing measures of students' real work over time, including projects, science experiments and oral presentations.

Board of Education members yesterday said they were worried the legislation would take away the "critical element of accountability and high standards" from the SOLs.

Kirk T. Schroder, chairman of the Virginia Board of Education, said the board was adopting a "wait-and-see approach" to the bills.

He pointed out that even now, SOLs are not the only criteria for graduation. Students, he said, must clear 28 hurdles to receive a diploma 22 of which are controlled by teachers in their grading of course work and six determined by the SOLs.

Board of Education member Mark Christie said bills that watered down the SOLs would "reverse the progress in higher student achievement" that was seen after the standards were put in place.

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