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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Virginia's Standards Make All Students Stars

Standards, testing, accountability, reporting—these are the components of Virginia's new Standards of Learning.

In 1994, the Virginia Board of Education began a sweeping change of the educational policies and practices in Virginia's public schools. The changes that the board mandates ensure that young people in Virginia can compete in the international economy of the 21st century and that students are informed and responsible citizens of our democracy. Most important, the board, believing that all children deserve a quality education, aimed its efforts at improving the education of every student in every school.
The reform is well under way and consists of four major elements.

New, High Academic Standards

The Virginia Board of Education adopted the new Standards of Learning (SOL) in June 1995. The Standards outline the minimum acceptable academic achievement by every student from kindergarten through 12th grade in the four major academic areas: English (including reading and writing); mathematics; science; and history and social science (geography, civics, and economics). Virginia's SOL also incorporate computer technology learning standards, resulting in computer literacy for all students before they enter high school.
Virginia's new SOL have received national acclaim for their clarity, content, and measurability. Virginia is the only state to receive the American Federation of Teachers' highest rating in all four basic academic areas. More than 20 other states have used Virginia's Standards as a model for their own standards.

Tests to Measure Student Progress in the New Standards

Following its adoption of the new SOL in 1995, the board's next step was to develop tests that measure student progress. The board, classroom teachers, curriculum specialists, and local educators from throughout Virginia began creating these tests in 1996, and schools first administered the tests in spring 1998.
Students take SOL tests in English, mathematics, science, and history and social science in grades 3, 5, and 8. There are 11 tests administered after students complete certain high school courses in the four core areas. Students in grades 5 and 8 take tests in computer technology.

Samples from the Virginia Standards of Learning

Samples from the Virginia Standards of Learning

History and Social Science Standard of Learning at Grade 3. The student will explain the term “civilization” and describe the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, in terms of geographic features, government, agriculture, architecture, music, art, religion, sports, and roles of men, women, and children.

Mathematics Standard of Learning at Grade 5. The student will investigate, describe, and extend numerical and geometric patterns, including triangular numbers, perfect squares, patterns formed by powers of 10, and arithmetic sequences. Concrete materials and calculators will be used.

Science Standard of Learning in Physical Science. The student will investigate and understand the nature and technological applications of light. Key concepts include

  • Reflection, refraction, particle theory, wave theory; and

  • Electromagnetic spectrum.


Sample Test Items for the Virginia Standards of Learning Assessment

Sample Test Items for the Virginia Standards of Learning Assessment

Grade 8 Mathematics: What is the value of the expression 3a ÷ [a − (a − 2)], when a = 6?

  1. − 9

  2. − 3

  3. − 1

  4. 9*

World History from 1000 A.D. to the Present: The creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the construction of the Berlin Wall are most closely associated with

  1. the Cold War*

  2. World War II

  3. World War I

  4. the Vietnam War

*These are the correct answers.

Measures to Ensure Accountability for Student Achievement

In October 1997, the Virginia Board of Education adopted new Standards of Accreditation (SOA). The SOA have one overriding goal: to ensure accountability for student achievement in our public schools. Accountability is achieved in two primary ways: First, students must pass a minimum number of high school SOL tests to receive a diploma; second, a student's test results for grades 3, 5, and 8 must be considered in promotion decisions. These requirements curtail the practice of promoting students before they are academically ready, and they address the demands of Virginia's business community that all high school graduates have demonstrated ability in such essential skills as reading, writing, and mathematics.
The board, believing that it is unfair to hold only the students accountable for achievement, requires that Virginia public schools must have at least 70 percent of their students pass the applicable SOL tests to retain their full accreditation. However, schools may be granted an accreditation status other than full. The required threshold for 3rd grade is a 50 percent pass rate on both the science and the history and social science tests, rather than 70 percent, because the 3rd grade curriculum emphasizes reading and math. The board makes accommodations for schools with large numbers of transient or limited-English proficient students.
To give students, parents, and schools time to adjust to the sweeping nature of the reform, the Virginia Board of Education decided that passing the SOL tests will not become a graduation requirement for students until the class of 2004. No individual school can lose its accreditation because of poor performance on the tests until the 2006-2007 academic year.

Performance Report Card

The board communicates with parents and the community through an annual school-performance report card. The Virginia Report Card provides information on attendance rates, dropout rates, and school safety and serves as a baseline measure for academic progress.
The Virginia Board of Education continues to listen to suggestions from parents, community members, and educators for fine-tuning the program. In response to these suggestions, the board has adjusted the test administration date, its efforts to meet the needs of special populations, its reporting procedures, and the consequences and the rewards associated with accreditation. The Standards of Accreditation have also been revised and released for public comment.

Schools Improve After One Year

Virginia schools showed marked improvement in student performance on each of the 27 SOL tests administered in spring 1999 compared with student performance in spring 1998. For example, 93 percent of the schools administering the 5th grade writing test improved their scores. Eighty-five percent of schools improved their scores on the algebra I test, and 90 percent of schools improved the scores on the algebra II test. Even on the high school test of U.S. history, which had the lowest statewide student-passing rate in 1999, 60 percent of the schools improved.
Of Virginia's 1,791 accreditation-eligible schools, 587 reached either the eventual pass-rate standard in each of the four applicable SOL content areas or the standard in either two or three content areas—a marked improvement over the first round of tests.

The Reform's Impact

No one would disagree that things have changed in Virginia's public schools. The Standards control the design of curriculum, and to better match the new SOL, many schools have realigned their curriculums, and teachers have refocused their instructional programs. The assessment component of the reform keeps educators and parents alert to what is expected in the classroom.
Remediation efforts—including prevention and intervention activities—have never been more important. Schools are developing programs that include tutoring and small-group instruction during the school day, after school, on Saturdays, and in the summer. The Commonwealth of Virginia contributed funds for academic programs for the 1998-2000 biennium, including $28.3 million to provide remediation to students who are at risk of failing the SOL tests. Funds also support the training of teachers in remedial techniques or strategies.
The reform has permeated educational conversations among teachers, principals, parents, and citizens and has generated a renewed interest in education from many viewpoints. Although stakeholders continue to raise questions and voice concerns, the progress that students are making and the commitment our teachers are demonstrating convince us that we are on the right path—the path that will allow all our students to be stars in the 21st century.

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