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Winchester students' average on history exams falls sharply
By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Blame the new tests, not the history teachers, Winchester Public School officials say.
Average scores fell significantly on Standards of Learning exams in the three history courses at John Handley High School taken last semester, according to the school system's director of instruction, Lynda Hickey.
Scores from Virginia and U.S. History as well as World History I and II fell an average 20 percent, according to Hickey, who reported the results to the Winchester School Board's instruction committee Thursday.
In the past, scores at the end of the school year reached the mid- to high 90s. The smaller group of students enrolled in the fall semester of the courses typically scored in the high 80s to low 90s, Hickey said. However, the fall 2010 semester scores dropped to the mid-70s, she said.
"These are fantastic teachers so we know something was different with the test," Hickey said. "We do know we had new SOLs, and what we're seeing across the state of Virginia, other schools that have 4-by-4 [block scheduling], they had the same concerns."
Students in block scheduling can take the history and other SOL classes in one semester or the other. Scores from tests taken after the fall semester are rolled into those calculated at the end of the school year.
Hickey said she didn't have specific data on how many students would have to retake the history SOLs exams as a result of low scores.
"Although we know that we embedded our new SOLs into our curriculum and [teachers] taught the same way they've been teaching and getting those high results, the only thing we can figure is that the format of the assessments must have been somewhat different," Hickey added.
"They improved, increased, updated and made more rigorous those particular standards," said Superintendent Rick Leonard. "This is the first rollout that reflects those standards."
The city school system isn't alone in its concerns, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
"We have heard from about 10 divisions regarding lower-than expected pass rates on the end-of-course SOL history tests administered this winter," Charles Pyles, director of communications for the department, stated by e-mail. "It is not uncommon for pass rates to dip when new tests are introduced."
As Pyles explained, the tests, based on history standards revised in 2008, include questions that "require students to apply knowledge rather than merely select the correct answer." A student may have to locate a place on a map rather than mark the right box on a multiple-choice question, according to Pyles.
Local school officials were taken off-guard by the new test, Leonard said.
"We're not allowed to look at that assessment, to investigate it, and we didn't have any practice-type questions so we're kind of blind in terms of where the absolute issues are," Hickey said. "We received no information from the state that said that format would change. All we really knew was that in each of the courses there were some content changes."
The state agency did give districts some idea of the changes for the recently updated mathematics SOLs, but not as much for the history assessment, according to Leonard.
Results came back later than hoped, and kept the district from responding earlier and expediting any retakes for students who performed poorly on the tests, according to Leonard.
But Hickey noted scores until now appear to show the teachers know the material and students can excel on the tests.
"We know that the information was taught, we're just not sure if we need to address, maybe from an instructional perspective, how it was taught," Hickey said.
District officials plan to discuss the concerns with the state Department of Education. Leonard said he predicts the next run of the tests will show improvement.