Food For Thought

SOLs and Graduation---How High the Stakes?

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

First, I want to write a disclaimer that I do believe in high educational standards and I’m not a hypocrite. Last month’s article emphasized that too many kids receive undeserved rewards. Some readers responded using the phrase, “feel-good society.” When students graduate from high school, we as a society want assurances that they achieved more than just feeling good about going to school for 12 years. The graduation diploma should indicate that students have met realistic minimum educational standards. The major educational question being debated is what measures should be used to determine student achievement.

Public officials have chosen to put increased emphasis on high-stakes testing as one measure. Many educators, including myself, have opposed the use of these types of tests as the final determiner of educational achievement. No single test can be a better evaluator of student achievement than 12 years of formal evaluation by trained professional teachers.

Those who have failed to listen to the educational community are suffering from “testing backlash.”  Throughout the country large numbers of students have been denied graduation because they failed to pass the high-stakes test.  Many of these students have good educational-achievement records. Using high-stakes testing as the sole final determiner for graduation lacks the element of common sense.

The student-testing program in Virginia began with the SOL (Standards of Learning) tests. Over the years opponents and critics have used statistics to back their views on the value of using these testing schemes to promote and determine educational achievement. Virginia State School Board Chairman Mark Christie had an article in the June 1 Washington Post that highlights achievements by students at various grade levels in many subjects. In a response letter to the editor, Mickey Van Derwerker, an outspoken critic of the tests, also provides some interesting statistics on the failure of the SOL testing program. As with this Food For Thought column, there are usually opposing views on every subject, but debate on my column usually hurts nothing except my ego. The SOL testing program can have major consequences for students and parents if it is used improperly as the sole determiner for receiving a high school diploma.

Evaluate the Program, Not the Pupil

I think this type of testing should be used to evaluate the curriculum and not the individual student. Sampling techniques that are a standard tool of any research could be used to determine the same student outcomes with a significantly smaller expenditure. We may not have the individual evaluations on every student, but we will obtain necessary data for identifying program strengths and weaknesses. Resources could then be directed to improve identified program weaknesses rather than wasted on testing schemes for everyone.

These tests originated in the political arena and will probably die in that arena. Politicians have given public education a nightmare instead of the funding required for real increased educational achievement. In states like Florida and Nevada politicians are squirming to find answers to the high testing failure rates, which are denying high school diplomas to an unacceptable number of students. In Virginia, the governor has seen the handwriting on the wall and has announced the launching of a remediation program designed to help students pass the SOL tests that are required for graduation in 2004. Governor Warner's commitment of $400,000 will do little to really improve education, other than teach a few students how to take the test. We are already spending too much educational time on that task.

While we as a community are arguing over the value of these testing programs, thousands of children get lost in the shuffle. What if class sizes were dropped by 20 percent and test results compared to gains promoted by the SOL testing program? Smaller class sizes also contribute qualitatively to the educational process. Reducing class size requires a significant commitment of financial resources compared to the testing program. So we choose testing — it’s simply a matter of the willingness to commit dollars to education. I often wonder what would happen if we spent $80 billion, the amount spent so far on the war in Iraq, to fight the “educational war?” I daydream a lot.

Private-school students are not required to take these tests. If your child is having a problem passing the test, enroll the child in a private school. Seems like a form of educational discrimination to me. In my opinion, no student should be required to face the consequences of a final exit exam. The diploma should be based on acceptable performance over 12 years, and not one small sample of a student’s educational experience.

In a recent discussion with my sons, who are both teachers, they commented on how students perceive that once the SOLs are given the school year is over. What a waste of time. In my day we had final exams, but they were given on the last days of the school year. I believe there is a general consensus that education was better in those days. Standardized testing must be given at the same time in all school divisions so it not only determines the curriculum, it also contributes to formation of the individual school calendar. What would an extra week of study do for student achievement in comparison to the $400,000 provided for remediation in the governor’s program? Teaching time is a precious commodity for teachers and they shouldn’t face needless hurdles like excessive testing schedules.

In Fairfax County, the failure rate is expected to be more than 10 percent, which could mean there will be far higher failure rates in less-affluent school divisions. These rates are unacceptable to the general public. We require our children to attend school for a given number of years. Our challenge is to use the assigned time to efficiently educate the child to reach his or her maximum potential. These tests in their current form do not help educators meet that challenge and need to be re-evaluated. Now all we have to do is find someone with the political courage to evaluate the testing process.


What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




Home ] Up ] Cover Story ] [ Food For Thought ] Down Home ] Say Cheese ] Reader Recipes ] Dining In ] Editorial ]