- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

RICHMOND — Surely this is not what Virginia education officials had in mind when they approved a battery of high school exit exams, Anne Luther said.

Her daughter, Erin, would carry a B average into her senior year at Patrick Henry High School in Ashland. Her goal: to go to college and become a teacher. But she had been unable to pass enough Standards of Learning (SOL) tests to earn an advanced diploma, which would look better on her college applications. Her confidence was shaken.

“Each time she fails an SOL, it is harder and harder to pick herself back up again and get motivated for the next step; to pursue goals, such as college and the SATs, in spite of the test results,” Mrs. Luther said in a letter to the State Board of Education this summer.

Erin would have opportunities to retake the chemistry and U.S. history exams. But time was running out. The class of 2004 is the first group required to pass the SOLs to graduate or, in cases such as Erin’s, qualify for an advanced diploma.

“This is the first year in Virginia we will require students to demonstrate they have high-school-level reading and writing skills to graduate,” said Mark C. Christie, immediate past president of the State Board of Education. “For years in Virginia, we’ve been giving diplomas to far too many kids who did not have those skills. That was a disservice to them.”

Another year of reckoning for Virginia’s public-school accountability program is 2007, when schools lose their state accreditation if fewer than 70 percent of students pass the exams.

Several states already have begun withholding diplomas from students who fail exit exams, in some cases prompting protests by students and parents. California delayed the consequences of its testing program, from 2004 to 2006, after a study projected one in five seniors would not graduate. New York rescored a math test, allowing more students to pass, after the failure rate increased from the previous year.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who has fully embraced the education reforms of two previous Republican administrations, vowed there will be no delays in Virginia. He also established summer academies to provide remedial help to seniors who have struggled with SOLs.

Despite the intensive remediation effort, the state’s superintendent of public instruction expects some increase in the number of 12th-graders who fail to graduate. Last year, about 9 percent failed to earn diplomas.

“If we are going to put a stop to — for lack of a better word — social graduations, I would expect those numbers to go up,” said state Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary. “I don’t know if that means twice as many, or 10 percent or 11 percent.”

Miss DeMary said she will have a better idea of what type of failure rate to expect after schools are surveyed late this month. Local school officials asked the state to wait until after summer test results were in, Miss DeMary said.

Mickey VanDerwerker of Bedford County, founder of a group critical of the SOLs, predicted that a high failure rate will result in public backlash.

“I would think there will be lawsuits,” she said. “Students in special education will be hit. The minority graduation rate is going to be low. At least in those two groups, you’ll be looking at some repercussions.”

Much of the criticism aimed at the SOLs during their formative years died down as the national education-accountability movement gained steam and the State Board of Education tweaked Virginia’s program to address complaints.

Among the board’s changes was the addition of a long list of alternative tests students can take instead of the state SOL exams: the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP) test in general biology test instead of the biology SOL test, for example.

The business establishment is firmly behind the standards and the testing program.

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