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A recently released student achievement report shows that an achievement gap continues to plague the county school system.

Revised Standards of Learning (SOL) tests have widened the divide between white and Asian students and the rest of the population, according to the report. The annual monitoring report takes stock of the county’s academic progress mainly through the lens of these state-mandated assessments, even as school officials question the value of such standardized tests.

The school system measures the achievement gap by comparing the performance of white and Asian students to the performance of other students, said Sloan Presidio, the assistant superintendent for instructional services. That comparison typically places the scores of white and Asian students up against those of black and Hispanic students, the two other largest racial and ethnic groups in the division.

“Really and truly, the achievement gap is the biggest academic challenge that we face in our division,” Presidio said.

New SOL tests, designed to be more rigorous and complex, have been introduced over the previous three school years, and with these came a drop in students scores across the board.

Yet while less students have passed the tests overall, the drop is more precipitous among black and Hispanic students.

In Fairfax, the new eighth grade reading SOL introduced this past spring saw the percentage of Asian and white students passing the test fall by eight percentage points each from the previous year, to 89 percent and 90 percent, respectively.

For black students, pass rates declined by 24 percentage points, and for Hispanic students, by 23 percentage points. Each group ended with a pass rate of 65 percent, about 25 percent behind their Asian and white peers.

Revised writing and science exams, also introduced last school year, as well as the new math SOL, introduced in the 2011-12 school year, saw similar disparities among eighth grade students. In both tests, Hispanic and black students had pass rates 25-30 percentage points lower than Asian and white students.

“Over time, our division was making very steady progress and starting to narrow the achievement gap,” Presidio said.

But the new tests have pulled that gulf wide again. This leaves school officials questioning whether the divide exists in the test, the division, or both - and how it can be narrowed.

Some from the school system pointed to the social studies assessments as showing promise in efforts to bridge the achievement gap.

The oldest of the revised breed of tests, given to students for the first time in the 2010-2011 school year, saw a narrower gap in the latest eighth grade results; white and Asian students had pass rates about 13 percentage points higher than black students, and 18 points higher than Hispanic students.

However, the new social studies exam did not come with the same drop in pass rates its first year seen in other subjects. So the gap has not narrowed but rather remained constant despite the new test.

The county School Board continues to caution against focusing on standardized test results as a measure of student achievement. Following the student achievement report, School Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill District) has proposed a motion to affirm the board’s priority to de-emphasize the SOLs and find new assessment methods.

But superintendent Karen Garza pointed out that right now, the school system needs students’ classroom knowledge to translate to these assessments, as the school system is still held accountable based on the scores.

“This board and this leadership team have said we don’t want to be all about the SOLs, but right now those are our measures,” Garza said. “We are reporting on those measures. But we know down the road we’d like to be different.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com