Schools May Get Warning

Officials Speak Out Against State Tests

Posted: August 27, 2014

HARRISONBURG — At least four schools in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are expected to be accredited with warning this fall, along with roughly a third of the rest of the state’s public schools.

Throughout Virginia, it’s anticipated that 600 of 1,800 schools would receive the designation this year, compared with 395 last year.

The Virginia Department of Education attributes the rise in warned schools to increased difficulty in standardized state achievement tests, called the Standards of Learning.

The tests are used to determine whether students are adequately learning required material.

But Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said greater rigor is not the problem when young children are forced to take reading tests lasting sometimes five or six hours.

“It’s due to being ridiculous,” Kizner said. “It’s a ridiculous accountability system. It has nothing to do with rigor.”

Schools accredited with warning have to devise mandatory plans for improvement, overseen by VDOE.

Thomas Harrison and Skyline middle schools will likely be accredited with warning, Kizner said, although the official accreditation list will be released in mid-September.

Carol Fenn, superintendent of Rockingham County Public Schools, said she thinks two schools may be accredited with warning, but it may be more or less than that.

She did not give the names of the schools because the list is not yet official.

“The test is not measuring the content we’re teaching,” she said. “There’s obviously a mismatch there, or Virginia schools would fare better.”

Four schools in Page County are likely to be warned: Page County Middle and Luray, Stanley and Shenandoah elementary schools.

What VDOE keeps calling “increased rigor” is a set of significant changes to a number of SOL subject tests in the past several years.

When the tests change, scores inevitably drop because students are unaccustomed to them, educators say.

Recently revised tests include types of questions that involve more critical thinking, for example, requiring multiple steps to arrive at the answer.

Schools are rated on either the previous year’s scores or the average of the previous three years, whichever is higher.

Students are still acclimating to the different tests, and scores have not yet started to bounce back for every school in every subject.

More and more schools are being warned because schools can’t rely as heavily on their three-year average scores for SOL tests, said Charles Pyle, spokesman for VDOE. “This has happened before, where standards are raised and more challenging tests put into place,” Pyle said. “[B]ut we do expect to see another increase in the number of warned schools, and I think it’s important that that increase be seen in the context of the changes in the SOL program.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe visited Skyline Middle and Smithland Elementary schools on Monday, and Kizner shared his concerns about SOL assessment tests.

McAuliffe ran on promises of revising the SOLs, and bipartisan legislation to reduce the number of tests kids take was passed earlier this year.

“He wants to reform the SOLs so that we don’t overtest kids and we don’t force teachers to teach to tests, but we can still make sure we have a good understanding of how our students and teachers are performing in the classroom,” said Brian Coy, McAuliffe’s spokesman.

Kizner and Fenn said they both plan to encourage all of their schools to pursue the best strategies for teaching and student learning.

Kizner added that he won’t “drive people crazy to keep chasing the state changes” because of what he says is a flawed system.

“We have no problem with accountability,” he said. “I think we owe it to the students, the staff and the public to demonstrate proficiency. But I think it’s pretty clear that our students, and students across the commonwealth, did not get any dumber, or teachers get any worse.”

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or kcloos@dnronline.com



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