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Worner: When measuring student success, SOLs are just the beginning | Commentary

Wayne “Dempsey” Worner

Kudos to Matt Hurt, director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program consortium, for his excellent nine-part series which describes the critical elements necessary to produce high Standards of Learning test scores in all settings.

His research findings demonstrate that these factors contribute to high levels of student performance on the SOL tests:

  • Establishing clear and measurable goals. (High pass rates for ALL students taking the SOLs.)
  • Allocating instructional time in support of those goals.
  • Collaborating with colleagues to identify and share the most effective strategies and materials to achieve the objectives.
  • Setting high expectations for all students. (No excuses.)
  • Ongoing assessment and feedback regarding utility and effectiveness of shared materials and processes.

These and the other strategies described by Hurt have produced the hoped-for outcome – namely, that ZIP codes should not and will not predict SOL results, when the consortium model is used.

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However, one must ask the question as to whether SOL scores represent a measure of quality that fulfills the Virginia constitutional mandate that ensures “that an educational program of high quality is established and continuously maintained.” Clearly, competence in reading and math are essential elements of a quality program and basic to student success in most other educational programs. They do not, however, measure the opportunities available to students across Virginia or the capacity of local school divisions to provide expanded programs in art, music, foreign language, computer applications, or the safe and updated facilities in which these programs are offered. These are not problems that can be addressed in the same way as improving SOL scores.

Nor do the SOLs, for the most part, measure higher-level thinking skills such as analysis, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. An observer once noted that “the most important things are the most difficult to measure.” It is a simple matter to administer a civics exam that asks the student to describe the separation of powers. We do not follow up two years later to see how many of these same students voted, or the criteria (or sources) they might use in making a choice between candidates.

Another participant on a governor’s task force that focused on how schools evaluate student performance observed, “We should not only be asking ‘what do students know’ but ‘what are they are able to do?’” SOL scores do not provide us with that information. Demonstrations or portfolios might.

None of this is to denigrate the work of Hurt and his team; quite the contrary. His work is a valuable contribution that disabuses us of the notion that SOL scores are predictable by ZIP code. He very practically chooses to deal with the SOLs head on because that’s the assessment method the commonwealth has.

We can only hope that future evaluation rubrics will include a broader range of performance measures when assessing the quality of school programs across the commonwealth. To do so will require that the General Assembly provide the resources necessary to ensure high-quality programs, services and opportunities for all Virginia students are available.

Worner is a retired professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Virginia Tech.

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