Parents and activists in Virginia say the controversial Standards of Learning (SOL) could be in for some major changes with a Democrat poised to take the helm in Virginia and most members of the Board of Education up for reappointment in the next three years.
The only change Gov.-elect Mark L. Warner has spoken about is the possible inclusion of an essay question in the history test. Those who favor the tests in their current form say they fear a lowering of accountability standards under Mr. Warner.
“It would not surprise me to see an easing of the elements of the tests,” said Steve Hunt, president of PASS-SOL, a Fairfax-based group that supports the SOLs.
Those who oppose the tests in their current form say they are excited about the new administration and hope for positive changes. The group has been pressing for the inclusion of multiple criteria for student assessment instead of using only the SOLs as a yardstick for graduation.
“We have had conversations with Mark Warner and think he understands the beginning of our argument. He wasn’t part of bringing in [the SOLs] and so he doesn’t feel wedded to it,” said Mickey VanDerwerker, who heads the group Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs (PAVURSOL).
Right now, parents and schools in the state are wound up about a 2004 deadline, when all high school students have to pass six SOL tests in order to graduate. By 2007, all schools that do not have a pass rate of at least 70 percent will have their accreditation revoked.
The rigorous testing and school-accreditation standards were first put in place in 1995 under Gov. George Allen as part of reforms to the public schools system. Since their inception, they have been something of a partisan issue, and those who support the tests have accused Democrats of not wanting to maintain a high level of accountability.
“People supporting this [Warner] campaign do not support the Standards of Learning. My concern is that he will create holes in the accountability element of the tests,” Mr. Hunt said.
A major change could come as the terms of the current board of education members who have consistently supported the SOLs expire over the next four years. All members in Virginia are appointed by the governor, and in January the terms of board President Kirk T. Schroeder and Diane Atkinson will expire. Susan Noble, Mark Christie and Audrey Davidson will come up for reappointment in 2002, while the terms of Gary Jones and Scott Goodman will expire in 2003.
The current board members, appointed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III, will most likely be replaced by candidates of Mr. Warner’s choice.
“We hope Mark Warner chooses people who have got an open mind and who are not cheerleaders for the administration,” Mrs. VanDerwerker said, adding that the current board always toed the administration line on the SOLs.
Mr. Warner’s office did not return calls for comment.
The SOLs are standardized tests in math, science, English and social studies administered to students in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school.
Virginia schools this year showed an improvement in SOL performance, with 40 percent of the schools receiving full accreditation, meaning 70 percent or more of their students passed the tests.
The number of accredited schools doubled since last year, but parents who are worried about the impending graduation requirement say there is a strong possibility that thousands of children will fail to graduate in 2004.
But current board members said the improving scores show their plan is working. “I don’t know what Warner’s plan is he has said he believes in standards and the board is working constantly on trying to make them better,” said member Susan Genovese, whose term expires in 2003.
Last year, several bills in the General Assembly supported creating multiple criteria for student assessment. A knowledgeable source in the school system said it was not just the Democrats but also Republicans who had sponsored some of these bills.
Mrs. Genovese said the board also was worried about the 2004 high school graduation requirement, and about the children who wouldn’t graduate. “But in the next few years, we will come up with plans to deal with this issue,” she said.