PHOTO: Taking SOLs on ipad

Accountability is a fairly straightforward concept. A

person or organization has an assigned task and is given instruction on how to do it. A method of measurement is used to determine if the task has been completed properly, or at least if progress is being made toward that goal.

That was the reasoning behind Virginia’s Standards of Learning initiative. Back in the late 1980s, Americans were realizing that kids coming out of high school had failed to learn what they were supposed to have been taught.

In 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush assembled an Education Summit at the University of Virginia to figure out what to do. Imagine this: All 50 governors showed up, showing rare bipartisan unanimity on the importance of learning and academic achievement.

If young Americans were to compete in an ever more competitive world, greater dedication to and investment in education were necessary. But how would we know if we were getting enough bang for the buck? There would have to be accountability.

While the nation debated how big of a role the federal government should play in K-12 education, Virginia pursued its own plan. In the mid-1990s, during the administration of Gov. George Allen, Virginia developed its Standards of Learning and administered its first SOL tests in 1998.

Since then, the number of subject areas tested has gone up and come down. Over time, the scores went up, so the tests were made tougher. The scores came down, as expected, and then started going back up.

Nevertheless, the same questions are still being raised. Are teachers spending too much time “teaching to the test?” Are students actually learning and developing critical thinking skills, or just committing facts to memory until test day?

The consensus these days seems to be that more students are graduating better prepared for whatever their futures hold than they were 25 or 30 years ago. And that’s a good thing, of course.

But starting this year, elementary and middle school students can opt out of SOL tests if their parents so choose. Without across-the-board mandatory testing, do the test results present an accurate measure of overall achievement in a particular school?

Both state and local education officials warn that such factors can have an impact on SOL pass rates. They note that annual accreditation data will provide a more comprehensive overview when it is released next month.

This year’s SOL results are truly a mixed bag for Fredericksburg area schools. As usual, some districts performed better than others, though Fredericksburg schools are showing the most room for improvement. Comparisons can be made between neighboring districts, or between this year’s scores and last year’s, or between local scores and state averages. The exercise is likely to yield news both good and bad for every district. Hopefully, the information tells school officials with some accuracy where they should focus remedial efforts.

Educators’ frustration is evident in their reactions to the test results.

“The data ... does not come close to revealing the complete student performance and accountability profile of SCPS or any school division throughout the Commonwealth,” Spotsylvania County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Baker said.

Changes made to the SOLs over the years to keep them current and challenging are worthwhile, but the outcomes are suspect when participation is limited. If the concern is too much testing, should the state instead rely on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered every other year? Its results are known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

Virginia education officials will no doubt continue to study and revise the SOLs as they see necessary. But how can they work as intended if not all students take them?

Twenty years after the first SOL tests were taken, we wonder along with school officials whether they are providing the accountability Virginia was looking for in the first place.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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