Tougher test standards requiring creative teaching methods

By Josette Keelor

School Standards of Learning scores have slipped increasingly in recent years as standardized testing rules keep changing.

Following last week’s announcement that only 66 percent of Virginia public schools earned full accreditation for the 2014-15 academic year, educators will have to reconsider how they teach to the standard. Reading, writing and science tests are more difficult than they were last year, and back-to-back revisions have made math and social studies assessments tougher than they were in 2010.

The result is that although all local schools are accredited, some have been warned to improve scores in the coming year.

But failure can be a good thing, according to Jim Angelo, assistant superintendent for instruction at Frederick County Public Schools. That’s how students and their school systems continue to grow.

“I think it will make them more competitive,” he said.

Another announcement recently from the Board of Education concerned tests discontinued earlier this year. Last Thursday, guidelines were released for locally developed assessments to replace SOLs in third grade science and history/social studies, fifth grade science and writing, U.S. history I for fifth or sixth grade and U.S. history II for sixth or seventh grade.

According to a news release, legislation requires school divisions to certify annually that they have provided instruction and administered an alternative assessment consistent with Board of Education guidelines to students in grades and subject areas that no longer have a corresponding SOL test. The board’s guidelines leave the type of assessments developed or selected to local school boards, and possibilities include traditional tests, performance- and project-based assessments, formative or summative assessments and integrated tests covering content from more than one subject area.

“We’re not going to see changes overnight,” Angelo said “… but we’re all working together and we’re feeling confident that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Getting there will also take changes, because testing well on the new SOLs isn’t as easy as memorizing statistics or learning more advanced vocabulary.

Tests now require students to think more critically, Angelo said.

“It’s what we call dynamics,” Angelo said. Tests are computerized, and “questions vary based on the previous response.”

Moreover, “It’s not that there’s only one correct answer,” Angelo said. “There may be multiple correct answers.”

“Students are aware of that,” he said, but it’s a new standard that requires students to think differently and instructors to teach differently.

The whole aspect of testing has changed, said Evelyn “Ebbie” Linaburg, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Shenandoah County Public Schools.

“You’re not just looking at facts and information, you’re trying to give students more opportunities to apply knowledge,” she said.

“Often the questions are more multi-step or they require application of knowledge,” she said. “If you don’t get every piece of it right, it’s wrong. So that’s made it more complex as well.”

In English, there’s greater emphasis on nonfiction, though paired reading passages combine fiction and nonfiction to encourage conclusions drawn from information. Questions that used to test research through reading now require it through writing.

For example, in a 2009-2010 eighth grade reading SOL, students could choose one correct multiple-choice answer that would fill in a blank space in a story progression. Now, they must choose from five possible answers to fill in three boxes.

Math tests also include more problem-based steps for solving problems.

“We’ve had to look [at] are we making sure that we’re aiming for the greatest level of critical thinking that we can,” Linaburg said.

Previously, teachers’ biggest concern for SOLs was covering all the required content in time to prepare students for SOL tests, Linaburg said.

Now they’re asking a new question: “Have we taught that content in such a way that the student can apply it in certain situations?”

First approved in 1995 by the Virginia Department of Education, the SOL has “changed in its complexity,” Linaburg said. “The depth of knowledge is greater, too.”

Before SOLs, Linaburg recalled a Literacy Passport test for sixth graders. Before that, there were only the Minimum Competency Exams for 10th graders.

Back then, she said, educators had to ask themselves a different question: “If we’re not testing students until their 10th grade year … are we making a difference soon enough?”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com