- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

RICHMOND — This year, Virginia’s 76,000 high school seniors must pass state Standards of Learning tests to graduate.

It’s the first time since SOL testing started in 1998 that students need to pass exams in reading and writing and four other subjects that they choose to get their diplomas.

The requirement took effect with students who entered ninth grade in the 2000-2001 school year. Passing the two English tests and tests in any other four subjects — for a total of six verified units of credit — is required to earn a standard diploma. Nine verified units of credit are required for an advanced studies diploma. Those who pass their courses but fail the required SOLs get a certificate of completion.

“We want to make sure they move on to meaningful post-secondary experiences,” said Jo Lynne DeMary, state superintendent of public instruction. “This is just one step for preparing our young people to be productive citizens. Everyone needs to get over this hurdle so that we can help them get to the next hurdle.”

Danielle McMahand said the SOLs came at a tough time of year, when things got very busy. The Thomas Jefferson High School senior said the exams were among several things she’s had to juggle in recent weeks.

“They were very difficult. Some of what you learn was not on the test but other stuff was,” she said.

Danielle said she stayed focused, passed her exams and will graduate next month.

To help students pass, the state is allowing those who fail — those who score less than 60 percent — to retake the exams as often as their school division’s testing schedule allows.

Gov. Mark Warner also introduced Project Graduation, regional after-school classes for students who need remedial help for their reading and algebra SOLs. An expansion of the program this year included statewide access to online reading tutorials.

The state Board of Education approved several alternative tests that students may take to earn credits toward graduation. The board also has approved a list of career and technical-licensure or certification exams that may be substituted for SOL tests to earn student-selected verified units of credit.

Starting in 2007, students must pass specific SOL tests in math, science and history, besides English, to graduate. Between now and then, school boards have the discretion to award credit to those who twice barely fail a science or history SOL test if they pass the corresponding course.

Unlike other states that have “backed off from accountability testing,” Miss DeMary said, Virginia has a “compassionate accountability program, with additional flexibility provided.”

A recent survey by Virginia Commonwealth University showed that 59 percent of state residents think passing the SOL tests is a proper graduation requirement.

But some critics say many of the alternative exams and other measures allowed by the state artificially boost graduation rates but don’t actually reflect whether students are learning.

“What originally has been predicted as a train wreck a couple years ago isn’t happening because the state has decided that people need to graduate,” said Mickey Van Derwerker, spokeswoman for Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs.

“They lowered the bottom line to make it more acceptable. We don’t think [students are] learning more,” she said.

Nearly 6 percent of Virginia’s seniors won’t graduate in June because of failing marks on their SOL tests or in their classes, according to projected figures from the state Department of Education. Nearly 5 percent failed to graduate last year, but this year’s figure is “in line with previous years, and a smaller percentage than some years,” spokesman Charles Pyle said.

“The end of the academic year shouldn’t be viewed as the final buzzer of a basketball game and that’s it,” Mr. Pyle said.

The state offers summer help for those who don’t earn their diplomas so that they might be able to graduate in August. But if they are 18 or older, they can choose to leave school, because the state’s compulsory education law no longer applies to them.

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