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Failing efforts for passing grades

SUPPOSE your professor announced that your entire grade for their course would be based on the final exam. Then, your professor intensified the situation even more by telling you the exam would be designed so that roughly 70 percent of the students pass. Angry and scared, you and your fellow students either protest your professor's decision or begin picking your professor's brain for information that will appear on the test. You're more concerned about passing the exam than actually learning new material.

This scenario would not be tolerated in a university setting. Students in Virginia's public schools, however, face these unfortunate circumstances every day. Schools must have 70 percent of their students passing the Virginia Standards of Learning tests by 2007 in order to maintain full accreditation. With the pressure of this deadline, many schools are more concerned with receiving full accreditation than they are with helping individual students pass the exams. It is time for schools to shift from focusing on accreditation to ensuring that individual at-risk students pass the tests.

A report released at the end of October noted a rise in SOL test scores among both African-American and Hispanic students on the tests given in May. Out of the 28 different subject tests administered, black students improved on 22 tests, and Hispanic students marked increases on 20 tests ("Hispanics, Blacks Do Better on SOL Tests," The Washington Post, Oct. 24). Another batch of SOL exam results released last Thursday cited 65 percent of Virginia's schools as making the full-accreditation mark. The majority of schools not on the list demonstrated improvement toward achieving this goal by 2007 ("Two-Thirds of Schools Meet Va. Goal," The Washington Post, Nov. 9).

With all this emphasis on numbers, there is a popular misconception that the Virginia SOLs are the devil incarnate. The measures, though, are not entirely bad. They act to standardize the curriculum across grade levels, thus allowing for greater continuity for students as they move through the school system. The SOLs additionally attempt to eliminate disparities between what teachers of the same grade level at different schools, and even within the same school, cover during the year. Overall, the SOLs help ensure that teachers present their students with a diverse curriculum, rather than simply examining topics they're passionate about and feel comfortable teaching.

There is nothing wrong with standards as one way to raise the bar in our state's schools. And improving the equality of education across Virginia is a noble goal. The problem, however, rests not in the standards themselves, but how standards-based achievement is judged, particularly as schools are evaluated.

Despite overall improvements in African-American and Hispanic students' test scores, a significant number of students continue to fail the various subject tests. Specifically, many at-risk students, such as language disabled and learning disabled students, have trouble with two of the most important tests, the English reading and English writing exams. Virginia's current high school juniors, the class of 2004, comprise the first class who must pass the SOL tests in order to graduate while schools as a whole have until 2007 to be accredited.

Schools throughout the state have until 2007 to raise their test scores and achieve full accreditation. As of right now, Mark Christie, the state Board of Education president, has not made clear what, if any, consequences schools failing to reach accreditation requirements would face. High school juniors, on the other hand, only have the rest of this school year and next year to improve and graduate on time. Student failure has an obvious consequence -- no graduation. Many schools have met or made significant progress toward meeting accreditation requirements, but have failed in helping individual students who need the most help.

At-risk students are named so because they come from groups with lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates than the rest of the student population. The last thing a school should do is make it even more difficult for an at-risk student to graduate. Students in general face SOL tests not fit to learning objectives as various skills such as writing are evaluated using a multiple choice testing format. Many at-risk students must deal with the cultural mismatch between their experiences and the test material. The fact that the tests have a 70-percent passing rate norm does not help the situation. In fact, it means that the state is expecting some students to fail.

It's easy to hear reports of SOL test score improvements across schools and different groups of students and think the quality of education in Virginia is improving. Despite recent gains, many students in the state are well below the bar. No one has a plan as to what to do with juniors who fail the SOLs when they don't graduate next year. The deadline is fast approaching. Don't let the numbers deceive you -- it's time to focus on individual students now and worry about accreditation later.

(Stephanie Batten's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at sbatten@cavalierdaily.com.)

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