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As the county school system fights for standardized testing reform, county high schools are adding another exam to their schedule.

Although the move might seem contradictory, the new international assessment exam actually serves as a test case for the changes the school system is advocating, according to Terri Breeden, the county’s assistant superintendent of professional learning and accountability.

“It provides an alternative to the issue of overtesting, a sort of new look for standardized tests,” said Breeden. “It offers a new, fresh approach to accountability.”

The test in question is offered through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD gives an assessment exam every three years to 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries to provide benchmarks for reading, math and science. The results of this Program for International Student Assessment exam have become highly touted measures of a country’s education system. However, the data provided by the test does not get more specific than the country level.

Last year, the OECD conducted a pilot program, offering a test based on the PISA exam to individual schools, and 10 Fairfax County high schools participated. This year, all 25 county high schools will give the test.

“We say we’re a world-class system, but are we?” Breeden said. “This test allows us to benchmark our progress internationally.”

More than that, this test offers a different approach to standardized testing. Rather than have every student take the test, it is given to a statistical sampling of 15-year-old students.

“We don’t necessarily need to test every child every year,” Breeden said. “We know that the path we’re on is not good for kids. The state’s not going to let us abandon SOL testing, but we wanted to see a different approach.”

Statistical sampling was one suggestion offered by the county School Board in a resolution it passed last week calling for reform of the state’s Standards of Learning tests. Right now, each student from every school takes 34 SOL exams between grades three and 11.

“The testing burden we have now in Virginia is just crushing, and this shows a way out,” said School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large).

The exam’s questions also offer a deviation from the traditional standardized test. Students must answer both multiple-choice and open-ended questions based on critical thinking skills.

The test also provided more nuanced information than the state’s standardized tests. For example, Chantilly High School received high math and science scores, but middling reading scores, and the data showed that the students lagged behind in displaying a deeper level of literacy. According to Breeden, the school was then able to implement targeted reading campaigns to address this issue.

The data also gave results from surveys included in the test show levels of student confidence and the strength of student-teacher relationships.

Velkoff hopes that, using the results from the OECD test, Fairfax County can make a case for wider change.

“Our goal is not to add one more test on top of all the testing,” Velkoff said. “We want to get richer information on our students and where they are academically. And hopefully we can use all this information to show state leaders a workable alternative model of assessment.”