By Kim Walter
Student achievement improved during 2012-2013 on the mathematics Standards of Learning tests introduced two years ago, according to a release from the Virginia Department of Education.
Just as lower math SOL scores followed increased rigor and a new testing format, the same can be said for scores on the 2012-2013 reading and writing tests.
Statewide, 71 percent of students passed the mathematics assessment for their grade level or course, compared to 68 percent during the previous school year. The biggest gains were seen in grades four, six, seven and Algebra II.
"I am so proud of the thousands of teachers in school divisions across this diverse state whose focus on critical thinking and problem solving - as well as mathematics content knowledge - prepared students to increase their achievement on these rigorous assessments," stated Patricia Wright, state superintendent of public instruction. "Raising standards is difficult, but well worth the effort. We are asking students to meet higher expectations so that when they graduate, they will be ready for college and the work force."
The online mathematics SOL tests taken by most Virginia students include technology-enhanced items that mirror classroom instruction and assignments. Multiple-choice items on the tests also reflect the increased rigor of math standards adopted by the Board of Education in 2009.
Warren County Public Schools improved in most of the math SOLs, but saw a significant decrease in the overall Grade 8 results. Only 31 percent of students taking the Grade 8 SOL passed, compared to 56 percent last year. The state average pass rate for the Grade 8 mathematics test was 61 percent.
Scores for the Algebra I test also decreased in Warren County, from 66 percent to 61 percent of students passing the test. The state average pass rate was 61 percent.
Greg Drescher, assistant superintendent for instruction of Warren County schools, said the county typically has more success with Algebra I students. He explained that if students have been successful in math classes up to seventh grade, then they would go right into Algebra I.
On the other hand, students who continue to struggle would take eighth grade math in order to receive additional preparation for Algebra I. Drescher admitted that the county hasn't seen much success with the progression.
"We knew earlier this year that we had some trouble with the Grade 8 tests, and so we're going to approach it in a different way," Drescher said. "Now, Grade 8 math will be a year-long course, and we're adjusting the curriculum to better align with that of Algebra I."
Frederick County Public Schools improved scores on six out of the nine mathematics tests. Results were only a few points away from state averages in Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry - courses that students have to pass in order to receive a diploma.
However, all math tests for grades three through seven showed results lower than the state averages.
Almost the same can be said for Shenandoah County Public Schools. The division improved in all nine mathematics tests, but average results from grades three through five still came in below state averages.
The English and science SOL tests taken this past school year were the first to reflect the increased rigor of revised standards adopted in these subject areas by the Board of Education in 2010. Last year also marked the debut of online SOL writing tests.
As expected, pass rates on the new tests were lower than in 2011-2012.
Drescher said Warren County, like other school systems, anticipated the "big dip" in scores, particularly in reading and writing.
"It's not that our kids didn't learn anything this year," he said. "But the expectations and standards have been raised, and when that happens, this is what you'll see."
While some tests saw little change, the majority of reading and writing scores in Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren County decreased by double digits. Science SOL results were a bit lower, but most were still above the state averages.
Peter Vernimb, Frederick County Public Schools' assistant superintendent for instruction, said several lessons were learned from the new reading and writing tests. The state passing averages were almost all between 70 and 80 percent, and the school system's results weren't too far off.
"I anticipate with minor adjustments, we will see big improvement," he said. "Instructional staff have been working with schools to implement improvements in teaching that will pay dividends over time."
Evelyn Linaburg, superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Shenandoah County, said she was pleased that reading scores were close to the state's, but she'd rather see them higher.
"Going into this new school year, we're going to look at the English scores school by school," she said. "Some schools might have reading or writing strategies that are working, and if so we can use those on the division-wide level."
The county's SOL scores for the Grade 8, biology, chemistry and Earth science tests exceeded the state averages even though they decreased slightly. Linaburg said the division's focus on student engagement and hand-on learning in the subject likely played an important role in the student achievement.
"You know, the numbers are there, and I know they play a part in some important things like accreditation and annual measurable objectives," she said. "But our biggest concern is, are we serving our students? ... and overall, I'm pleased."
Drescher said the total SOL pass rates - using results from each subject -- for school divisions in the region were close.
"We're all somewhere between 72 and 79 percent, if you're averaging all the results," he said. "So, we're in a similar situation, and we'll all have to adjust."
State accreditation and federal accountability reports will be issued next month, along with updated school and division report cards. In the news release, Wright predicted that even with the three-year averaging mitigating the impact of the new tests, there will be some schools that will slip from fully accredited to accredited with warning.
"I hope parents will view these accreditation changes in the context of the state raising standards so that their children -- regardless of where they live -- will be better prepared for the challenges of postsecondary education and the realities of global competition," Wright stated in the release.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org