Changes to Virginia’s current system of student assessment are set to debut next school year, but school officials and teachers are concerned about the quick turnaround required to get the new assessments in place.
Legislation reforming the Standards of Learning testing system received wide support in the General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in April. The Fairfax County school system joined many school districts and education organizations in pushing for a shock to the current standardized testing system, which requires students to take 34 SOL exams from grades 3-11.
With the new law, five of these tests will be eliminated: the social studies exams for third, fourth and sixth graders, the science exam for third graders and the writing exam for fifth graders. The tests will be replaced by what the legislation calls “authentic performance assessments.”
Such an assessment could be an essay, presentation, project or even a portfolio of academic work, allowing students to show their understanding of a topic without sitting through a typical multiple-choice exam.
Cathy Hix, president of the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators, said one example could be having students create a tour of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., incorporating information on his presidency and policies.
“With performance testing, you’re trying to tap into students’ understanding,” Hix said. “Multiple choice exams test students on what they don’t know. These assessments ask them to show what they do know.”
VCSSSCE was one of the organizations that backed the standardized testing reform. But in April, Hix sent a letter to the state Board of Education requesting a one-year delay so school districts have time to develop the new tests and train teachers.
“As a consortium, while we still firmly believe that this is a great practice, across the state we’re all in different places in putting these in the classroom,” Hix said.
With the law in place, though, Hix acknowledged that any delay would be a longshot, so her organization is working closely with the state Board of Education and school districts to speed up their preparations.
Hix, along with two other representatives from VCSSSCE and representatives from the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, will appear before the state Board of Education’s accountability committee next Wednesday to talk about potential guidelines for the new assessments. The VCSSSCE is also encouraging its members to share project ideas from their divisions.
“We’re concerned about getting these quality assessments in place,” Hix said. “We don’t want to default to assessments that aren’t as good.”
Fairfax County schools are farther ahead than some, as they have already been developing authentic assessments and working them into the curriculum, according to Craig Herring, the school system’s director of curriculum and instruction.
Still, Herring said guidance from the state so far has been lacking.
“We don’t know exactly what these assessments will look like,” Herring said. “We don’t know whether we can use some of the projects we have in place or whether we will need to come up with entirely new assessments.”
Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, the state Department of Education will create a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee this summer to provide direction for authentic assessments and recommend further testing reform.
For right now, though, Fairfax County is grappling with potential problems, from reshaping the curriculum to training teachers for the changes.
“We’re hoping with the science and social studies associations for a soft rollout next year, so we can find the best way to implement these ideas,” Herring said. “If we rush, I don’t know if the product is going to match what it could be.”