Sunday, August 23, 2015

Virginia SOLs 2015, An Overview

We have tended in Virginia to be in denial about standards, testing, and privatization; and the impact of reform on our schools. Afterall, We aren't like those other states,

but an overview reveals more danger and crisis than we might wish to acknowledge.

When SOLs came into being in 1998, "standards" and "backward design" were the up and coming thing, the seminal efforts at pushing instruction into second place behind assessment and accountability. They were about improving outcomes-- Never mind that the only public meetings slated for Northern Virginia were changed 24 hours before they were scheduled, and moved miles further south to limit parental input, and the SOL committee was stacked with home schooling members whose goals were vouchers. But, the unions went along; teachers were committed to improving instruction, not just improving working conditions and pay. The first year scores were a disaster, as might be expected, but each year all but the poorest schools managed to raise scores, and Virginia, like Massachusetts, gained a reputation of being "the best in the country" based on the "rigor" of our tests and our scores.  

By 2008 too many students were passing, and oddly enough, about the same time the rest of country was getting Common Core. So, the SOLs underwent a retooling that created a 15 point average drop in scores statewide in 2011-12 and 2012-13, the first years of the new SOL tests. The new tests also included some fairly questionable practices such as multiple concepts tested on a single question, and technology enhanced questions that could be missed through lack of technology practice rather than by lack of content knowledge. The scoring process also changed to include more complex and less transparent scoring practices which created occasions when students could pass the same number of questions, but receive different composite scores.  The privacy rules became extreme (teachers required not to look at the screen, not to speak to students at all when escorting them to the bathroom, or ask if students had completed the test before exiting them from the exam.)

At this point, (2015) the central State DOE testing budget is about $47 million a year, and the cost in instructional time for most schools is between 4 and 5 weeks of the school year, not counting the weeks needed for review and pre-test prep, and not counting local test spending. Control of content of the tests, and supervision of Pearson's grading practices is somewhat limited, and technology failures from Pearson and infrastructure strain are commonplace. Retakes for new students, second language learners, and special needs students have become the stuff of Stephen King movies.  

Yet, we Virginians have felt protected by our reputation and the Virginia Constitution which has limited the avalanche of TFA (temp teachers) and school takeovers suffered by other states, but those factors have not prevented the pressure on our poorer communities in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach region, Richmond, and our small far western rural communities from being under threat.  Testing has also drained the dollars that might have been used for supporting those poorer districts.

Even in our suburban Northern Virginia districts the state system of school grading created another whole level of data collection for School Improvement Goals and has instituted a second level of quarterly testing that infringes on the quality of instruction all year. SOL Pacing guides have established a rigid set of expectations about what will be covered each year, and now truly converts the standards into a complete mandated curriculum, regardless of needs for differentiation.  
Unfortunately, the SOL Innovation Committee has only reduced the load from 22 to 17 tests (amazingly, the number still expected to be required under the new ESEA if it passes) and has left high schoolers having to take 12 SOLs, in spite of overwhelming evidence that standardized testing as a learning indicator is severely flawed and detrimental. ALEC representatives in the Virginia House are continuing attempts to change the Constitution which would open the option for the State to force more takeovers and require localities to accept a state selected charter company regardless of local wishes. (Notable, is that the Charter industry openly demanded this of the legislative reps at Governor McDonnell's last education summit, maintaining they were tired of dealing with local school boards).

Even more concerning is that in an effort to off-load pensions the state legislature has created a Pension Crisis that would force privatization of teacher pensions. What does that have to do with testing? The pension crisis is creating a massive funding liability for local school districts across the state, which will limit funding for any instruction outside the basic test prep the state has mandated. The pension crisis is perfectly suited to be the back door method for not only forcing total pension privatization, but for pushing local districts into accepting the privatization of their schools, which was arguably the goal of the SOLs to begin with.

Finally, the policy makers currently in control of both the state DOE and legislative choices continues to be those aligned back in 1998 and 2008 with the SOLs to begin with. Because the vested reputations of our former governors and current legislators were built on testing and privatization as a Great Idea, they are unlikely to have much of an epiphany about testing, or be willing to address the created pension crisis, and will continue to probably only make the smallest cosmetic changes possible.

So. What. Us Worry?