Virginia’s Standards of Learning:
A Better Future for Our Children
by Kirk T. Schroder, President, Virginia Board of Education, Guest Editorial

Kirk T. SchroderIt’s summertime. Children all over the state are enjoying their summer vacations with family and friends — and Harry Potter. They’re not thinking about school right now. Rest assured, schools all across Virginia are already preparing for the students to return in September.

Teachers across the state are busy getting ready for a new school year by attending classes and workshops, working to improve their local curriculum plans, and reviewing the new teacher resource guides recently developed by the Virginia Department of Education. Many teachers are working with teams of other teachers from all over Virginia to review Standards of Learning test items. Teachers are also busy analyzing their school’s Standards of Learning test results to make sure that their curriculum addresses the needs of their students.

It may be the lazy, hazy days of summer for some, but not for classroom teachers.

Our public schools are in the business of educating young people at an exciting time when we are truly experiencing the globalization of the world’s economies. This is also a time of huge change in the expectations of what schools and students are asked to accomplish.

Virginia’s Standards of Learning

The future is here — and the schools in Virginia must be ready! This is where the Standards of Learning program comes in.

There are two principal reasons why Virginia began its effort to raise student achievement. First, while many of our schoolchildren were doing quite well in our public schools, far too many others were falling through the cracks. Second, the 21st century will be characterized by a knowledge-based economy that will be more competitive than ever before in history. Academic achievement levels that may have been sufficient in the past will not be enough in the future. Consequently, all our students, even our previously successful ones, will need higher levels of skills and knowledge to get the good, well-paying jobs that will flow to those countries and states that have the best educated work forces.

Virginia’s Standards of Learning program (often called the SOL) rests on a common sense concept: set high, clear, and measurable academic standards for each grade on a statewide basis, then test in grades 3, 5, 8, and in high school to measure student progress in meeting those standards. Help the children who are falling behind, and tie school accreditation to student achievement to ensure accountability.

Without a doubt, many of our public schools are doing a great job. Our public school graduates attend some of the finest universities in the nation where they compete successfully with the world’s best. Other schools are doing heroic jobs educating children who face huge obstacles to success.

But the fact remains that one out of three Virginia sixth graders fell short on the Literacy Passport Test on its most recent general administration, a failure rate that has not changed in 10 years. The LPT is not a difficult test; in fact, it measures only the most rudimentary reading, writing, and math skills. Moreover, one out of four graduates of Virginia public high schools needs remedial work in English or math as college freshmen. In short, the data clearly show that too many children in our public schools are not achieving at levels necessary for success in a global market economy.

Raising Achievement Levels

I believe deeply in our public schools, but as these facts indicate, there is a need to raise student achievement levels. If children can’t read, write, or compute competently, they will suffer not only in school, but throughout their lives as well. Public schools are so important to our children and their future social and economic success that we must insist upon a higher level of achievement for all our students.

That is why the Standards of Learning program is so important.

Our standards-and-accountability-based Standards of Learning program is clearly working. I say this not only because we have seen substantial improvement in student achievement levels on the SOL tests this year, but for other reasons as well. Anyone who has talked to numerous parents and educators from around Virginia, or followed closely the extensive media coverage of this issue, must acknowledge that the public schools of Virginia are now focused as never before on student instruction and achievement.

Typical was the comment I received from a public school administrator from Spotsylvania County who, while still skeptical about the SOL reform, conceded that in his 25 years as an educator he had never seen so much time and effort being spent on student instruction and academic achievement. Another comment came from a local school superintendent, who said, "Teachers are working harder, teaching better, and taking their jobs more seriously because of the SOL."

As I travel across the state visiting schools and talking with teachers and students, I hear many similar comments.

Numerous newspaper stories around Virginia have detailed creative and innovative programs taking place in public schools to help children raise their achievement levels. All over Virginia, there are teachers who are demonstrating exciting and innovative ways of teaching the Standards of Learning. Field trips to museums, theaters, and art exhibits that complement the Standards of Learning are also positive and interesting ways to help children learn, and should be encouraged.

Importantly, there is widespread evidence schools are increasing classroom time for slow learners in the SOL academic areas, especially in reading, which is essential to success in all other academic areas. We are already seeing tangible, encouraging signs of success in raising students’ reading skills levels. For example, Virginia students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test last year posted one of the nation’s most significant increases in reading scores. I give much of the credit to the Standards of Learning program, which is reading-intensive, especially in the early grades. Already, we are making important progress in raising student achievement.

Recognized as Best Standards

The Standards of Learning are nationally recognized as among the best academic standards in the country. Some have said, however, that the SOL program encourages "teaching to the test" and that teachers will just emphasize test-taking skills, not content. I disagree. Look at it this way: the SOL tests measure knowledge and skills in the subject matter that should be taught in the classroom. A child cannot do well on the SOL reading tests unless he or she is a proficient reader, cannot do well on the math tests unless he or she is proficient in math, cannot do well on the science tests unless he or she has learned the classroom science material. There is one test-taking skill that does help children do well on all the SOL tests: the ability to read and write. That is a test-taking skill that each and every child will benefit immeasurably from acquiring.

Most of the concerns and anxieties about the SOL tests are similar to the concerns that arise whenever major change is brought to a large institution such as the public education system. I believe that these concerns will subside as the Standards of Learning become familiar to both teachers and parents.

One Factor Among Many

A common question from parents is whether it is fair to base a student’s future on "one test," taken when a student could have had a "bad day." That is not what Virginia is doing.

First, the SOL tests given in grades 3, 5, and 8 cannot be the sole factor in determining whether a student is retained or promoted to the next grade level. The tests are one factor for schools to consider, but not the only factor.

Second, the high school tests, which will eventually be required for graduation, may be retaken as many times as necessary. They are not "one bite at the apple" tests. If a student is not successful the first time, that student will get the remedial help needed to improve his or her skills, then have the chance to take the test again and pass it.

Third, the Board of Education has adopted a policy that the tests in all grades should be untimed to reduce student anxiety and give the student all the time he or she needs to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter.

Will adjustments be needed as we move forward? Sure. The Board of Education is continually listening to parents and educators and looking for ways to improve the SOL program. We will continue to respond to concerns and questions from teachers, parents, and other citizens, as we already have.

A Better Future for Our Children

Parents and teachers working together can make a better future for all our children. That is what the Standards of Learning program is all about: ensuring that all public schoolchildren get the opportunity for a better future by giving them the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in a global economy and to be informed, responsible citizens of our commonwealth. Fulfilling that vision will be good for our children and good for our public schools.


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