Doug Thompson illustration
Paris Barksdale started her freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University with all the confidence of an honors student. She was among the top 20 in her class at Richmond's Thomas Jefferson High School, and she maintained a 3.0 GPA while taking honors courses and involving herself in extracurricular activities.
"I thought I was on my way to a successful first year," said Barksdale, who entered VCU with hopes of becoming a nurse. Within weeks, she realized that high school had not prepared her for the rigors of college. She'd been taught to perform well on the standardized tests used by the state to evaluate her school. But, she says, she was not prepared to comprehend material in her first classes at college. Though she studied night after night until 11 p.m. or midnight, she says, her grades went into freefall.
"I couldn't grasp what they were teaching," she says. "I failed."
The difference, she found, was that in high school "we were taught the things that were on the SOLs (Standards of Learning) and not the tools we should have learned. We knew the answers, but we didn't know how to get to the answers."
Barksdale's observations aren't unusual. Critics — among them, college officials, professors, public school teachers and students — claim that Virginia schools are hyper-focused on improving test scores for the SOLs, a curriculum and testing system intended to create standards in all public schools. But while schools focus on improving their testing statistics — the state's basis for accrediting them — they're not teaching students what they need to know to succeed in higher education or in the working world. It's a charge that's been leveled by critics for years, but also an issue increasingly acknowledged by education officials as they implement revisions to the SOLs and seek out partnerships with community colleges to help bridge the divide between SOL success and college readiness.
A review of SOL tests over the last seven years shows that the tests have gotten easier. Since their adoption, the tests have been tallied using a passing score threshold of as low as 50 percent. The upshot is that SOL tests make some Richmond-area schools, as well as schools statewide, appear good on paper, even though a closer look at the schools' scores shows students are learning no more and probably less than in the past.
As a result, Richmond-area students often are enrolling in colleges and universities only to find they need remedial courses to get up to speed on academic content that they should have learned in high school as part of the SOL curriculum. In a J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College study of recent high school graduates, 62.7 percent of students entering Reynolds were placed into some type of developmental or remedial courses.
"When you finish high school and have a diploma, you ought to be able to read and write and do basic math," says Don Blake, a former member of J. Sargeant Reynold's board of directors.
"If they're coming out of city schools, or Henrico schools … and they're going to community college and having to take remedial courses, that's awful."
Richmond City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano says she recognizes the ill effect the divide between a high school diploma and college preparedness may have on workforce development, a key component to Mayor Dwight Jones' efforts to make Richmond a tier-one city. But the problem is universal, Graziano says. "I think the pressure to show improvement in SOLs is not limited to Richmond. We're so test oriented. We need to have a measure of the progress of the students in school, but it's a thin line between educating people and teaching to the test."
SOLs were in part an effort to close the gap between high school and college, at least according to former Deputy Secretary of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke. When she addressed the state's Parent Teacher Association in 1999, she pointed out that 24 percent of high school students need remedial courses when entering college. At the time, only 2 percent of public schools had met the accreditation standard based on the 1998 inaugural SOL tests.
By 2008-09, more than 90 percent of public schools were accredited but at the same time, graduates needing remediation had climbed slightly to 24.2 percent, according to statistics maintained by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
"You can't simply fatten a calf by weighing it repeatedly," says Dr. William Bainbridge, a research professor at the University of Dayton's SchoolMatch Institute, and a former Hampton, Va., superintendent of schools, likening SOL tests to the scales and students to the calf. "You have to feed it."
Unfortunately, Bainbridge says, SOLs and their use in determining school accreditation mostly feeds the political beast.
"Frankly, the Commonwealth of Virginia is one of the most politicized, partisan states in the country with regards to schools," Bainbridge says, pointing to "a tremendous pressure that's put on the people in the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and in the districts" to show quick, year-over-year gains, even at the expense of the better education system that was the original purpose. "The politicians would like to live in a fantasy world. This isn't helping children at all."
Tracy Green, director of outreach and recruitment for J. Sargeant Reynolds, says many more policy makers and educators "were once supporters of [the SOLs]. But there are voices now saying ‘Wow, we really did a number that we're really having to correct.'"
Richmond-area schools are not alone in graduating undereducated students, according to Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. The most recent statistics indicate that almost a quarter of 40,000 Virginia high-school graduates entering public colleges and universities required at least one remedial class.
"The community colleges have an enormous workload in terms of preparing the students to continue their studies after high school," Nelson says. "I can also say anecdotally we hear stories from frustrated professors."
The Virginia Department of Education is well aware of the divide between high school and college readiness, says Linda Wallinger, assistant superintendent for instruction with the VDOE. She says the VDOE has taken recent steps to narrow the gap: Recently, English, science and math SOL standards have been significantly raised, and those changes are to be phased in over the next two years. She also says that how the tests are administered is expected to change in the near future. They no longer will rely on multiple-choice questions, usually easier to answer, she says. Instead, the "students will have to have the basis for an answer themselves."
Meanwhile, VDOE is working with the state's community college system to create special courses that will prepare students for college rigor, says Wallenger, who did not provide more details on the program.
High schools are "currently aligned to SOL success," says Jeff Krauss, spokesman for Virginia's Community Colleges. "The question really is, are the SOLs properly aligned to college readiness?"
A Better Avenue to Education
SOLs were introduced more than a decade ago as a means of preparing more young people for college and ensuring that all children receive the same basic education regardless of economics or demographics. By 2004 in Virginia, passing SOLs had been phased in as a requirement for all students graduating high school.
Over the years, the tests have become a kind of gold standard. SOLs are used to determine whether a school is accredited. At least 70 percent of students must pass SOL tests in the core subjects of math, English, science and social studies. In some cases, SOL tests serve to exempt students from end-of-course exams.
Developed by the state Board of Education and the VDOE and adopted through a public, sometimes tumultuous process, the core standards of the Virginia SOLs comprise the content that the board deems necessary knowledge for children as they advance from one grade to the next. The core standards have been revised only occasionally, most notably to bring them into sync with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle.
But critics argue that SOL testing has morphed into a tool that allows school districts to show improvement in SOL pass rates, even though students may not be learning more. Critics point out that SOLs are "floor tests," meaning they test for bare minimum competency rather than functional knowledge or understanding.
Minimum competency is established using what are known as "cut scores." Students taking SOLs are not graded on the percentage of questions they answer correctly. Instead, each subject test for each grade level has its own "cut score," a predetermined number of correct answers, which then determines whether a student receives a "fail," "pass/proficient," or "pass/advance." Since a cut score for pass/proficient can be as few as half the questions, a student could, on some tests, answer only 30 of 60 questions correctly and still pass. On most tests the "floor" is set at about a 60 percent.
"I think that the cut score is something that people don't completely understand," says James Ryan, a law professor at the University of Virginia who examined SOLs as part of research for his book, Five Miles Away, A World Apart. "But if they did, they would be pretty alarmed. These are supposed to be proficiency tests. [But] you only have to get the correct answer on 50 percent of the questions. Or to put it a different way, proficiency doesn't mean what you think it means."
Critics — many of them teachers and administrators — also say that with each passing year, the way that SOL questions test knowledge of core concepts makes it easier for students to do well. "I think in some ways, the real story is just how basic these tests are," Ryan says. "So much turns on the SOLs, both for the individual students, as well as for the district, that it's easy to believe the SOLs are setting really challenging standards, when in fact they're really focusing on the basics."
One example of dumbing down is the difference between questions on third-grade science exams in 2001 and 2008. ( These questions are drawn from actual tests on the VDOE website. )
The 2001 test asked:
Which material will not dissolve in water?
c. baking soda
The 2008 question asked:
Which of these dissolve in water?
a. sand grains
b. sugar cubes
c. plastic straws
d. wooden spoons
DOE spokesman Pyle says critics of SOL testing, and especially the cut scores, are missing an essential point.
"I think you have to go back and look at what was going on in the mid-1990s and the late-90s," he says. Statewide reading scores had plunged, setting off alarm bells and setting in motion SOL reform, which "was really about K-12 and minimum standards … not necessarily focused on preparing more kids for college," Pyle says. "At the beginning of the SOL program, the idea was to determine that point where a student displays the minimum acceptable level of proficiency. That's where the cut score is set.
"It doesn't represent an aspirational goal," he says. "The state board has always encouraged districts to exceed the standards."
Recognizing that this approach may be contributing to the gap between high school and college preparedness, the SOL "cut scores," or passing scores, are also "something the [Virginia Board of Education] is going to be revisiting," Pyle says.
A review of SOL pass/advance scores at many accredited local schools indicates that exceeding the standard remains an exception, not the rule. And some districts appear to be resorting to strategies that inflate their schools' SOL scores:
High-achieving students who attend governor's school programs have their SOL scores counted toward the district schools that they don't attend.
International Bacclaureate programs like Henrico High School's are placed in otherwise underperforming schools and, as a result, boost the percentage of students who pass SOL tests.
In some cases, students with disabilities are administered easier standardized tests, which eliminates the possibility that they might bring down overall SOL averages, says former Richmond School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf; she found that in 2010, 15 percent of Richmond students took an alternative test that the General Assembly is phasing out, citing misuse and overuse.
And some schools appear to employ another tool to redirect poor SOL performers who also exhibit behavior problems. Such students are often sent to the Richmond Alternative School, known as Capital City Program or CCP. As a result, their test scores figure toward the Alternative School's accreditation and are no longer included in their home schools' SOL statistics. Former State Board president Kirk Schroder, who says he still has faith in SOL assessments of schools, acknowledges that playing with numbers happens in localities, despite the best efforts of some policy makers.
"You can't regulate what people do" at the local level, Schroder says. He adds that motives are mixed. "You have policy people whose motives are to improve the school system, and you have other policy makers whose motives are to just get by and find shortcuts."
The Human Cost of SOL Success
As SOL scores and graduation rates have climbed, more schools have received full accreditation. This year, 98 percent of schools across the state were accredited. In September, Richmond Superintendent of Schools Yvonne Brandon announced that all 46 of the district's schools had received state accreditation during the 2009-10 academic year. Eight years earlier, fewer than 20 percent of Richmond schools were fully accredited.
"Our kids will reach a level of recognition, like no other year before, that they can stand proud, shoulder to shoulder with any child in the state of Virginia and proclaim that ‘We can do it,' " Brandon told reporters.
But for Barksdale, the Thomas Jefferson honors student who left Virginia Commonwealth University after struggling for a year, the universal accreditation is proof that regardless of what education leaders might say, standardized tests and benchmarks don't add up to success in college.
"I felt like the main focus in my classes was passing the SOL," she says. She says some math teachers spent as much time on test-taking strategies as they did on course content. "If I'm doing math problems in class at college, [the professor] is not going to give me [a choice of] A, B, C or D," Barksdale says. Instead, she says, college professors require students to solve the problems, and her own reaction was, ‘Wow, I don't have the process of elimination anymore. How do I do this?' "
Barksdale, now 23, runs a daycare facility out of her home. She's married and expecting a child but still dreams about her brief stint at VCU. Had she been able to cope with the academics, "right now I would ... be a teacher or a nurse," she says. "I'm not unhappy with where I am. I just don't know if I'm satisfied."
Candice Smith, another Richmond Public Schools alumna, had a similar experience. On the day that Superintendent Brandon made her triumphant announcement, Smith sat outside City Council chambers, waiting. She was determined to tell the Council's health, human services and education committee why the city's universal accreditation should be taken with a grain of salt.
"I was honor roll," Smith tells a reporter outside the chambers. "I passed all of my SOLs — every last one of them."
Having earned a high-school GPA of nearly 3.5, she was accepted by four-year colleges including Virginia Commonwealth, James Madison, and Norfolk State universities. But all three schools told her that she would have to take expensive remedial courses, so she enrolled at J. Sargeant Reynolds, where she still paid more than $1,000 for remedial courses.
"[Richmond] didn't teach us anything but the SOLs," Smith says bitterly. "I feel cheated … and I know a lot of other students who feel cheated as well."
Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): Established as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which requires states set annual measurable objectives of proficiency in reading and mathematics. AYP is separate from school accreditation measures, though some of the same indicators, such as SOL tests, are used to measure achievement.
Standards of Learning: Adopted by Virginia in 1998, the SOLs established core requirements intending to standardize educational objectives for schools across the state. The standards cover four "core" content areas (English, math, science and history/social sciences) at various grade levels, setting required learning objectives for each core content area, as well as state-administered end-of-course tests for each.
School Accreditation: State certification that at least 70 percent of students at a public school have received at least a pass/proficient SOL score in each of the four-subject areas. Some elementary level subject area accreditation requirements are higher or lower than 70 percent.
Virginia on-time graduation rate: A percentage indicator of how many students have received a certified state diploma, figured according to a four-year span beginning when a student enters ninth grade. Calculated by the VDOE for the state, each locality and for each school.
Federal on-time graduation rate: Also calculated according to the same four-year span, but differs significantly from the Virginia rate because it does not include a variety of other diploma categories. Only "standard" and "advance standard" diplomas are considered. Also calculated per school, locality and state.