Our ranking revealed a broad disparity between the quality of schools in the Richmond region, with some scoring very high and some scoring very low. But with few exceptions, they all came up short in one particular area — the writing portion of the English SOL. For middle schoolers taking the essay part of the Standards of Learning (SOL) test, earning pass/advanced, or about a B+, was nearly unattainable.
At our top-ranked school, Henrico County's Pocahontas Middle School, only 12 percent of students scored pass/advanced on that portion of the test. One other school scored higher than that: At Henrico's George F. Moody Middle School, 27 percent of the students earned pass/advanced. But at the rest of the 38 schools, no more than 8 percent and as few as 1 percent of the students did well enough to receive pass/advanced.
It's a problem that the state Board of Education is well aware of, says Virginia Department of Education Spokesman Charles Pyle. He says, "Weak writing skills seem to be a national phenomenon that all states are working on."
But Pyle says that the Virginia Board of Education also intentionally set "a high bar" for the writing portion, since the national SAT test that most college-bound Virginia students also includes a rigorous essay section. "They have to take the essay — we want them to be prepared for that," Pyle says. And even if students are not aiming for college, "we want them to have strong communication skills."
Pyle says the state board's concern about the low percentage of pass/advanced scores in writing has "certainly informed the most recent revisions of the English standards." The new SOL standards, adopted in 2010 and fully implemented by the 2012-13 testing year, also will increase the writing requirements in other subjects. Free-response questions in history and science, for example, will require students to use their writing skills.
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