Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Va.

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Many local Virginia educators are wondering what steps to take next after a staggering 97 percent of their public schools failed the new state tests that will eventually determine whether schools are accredited and students graduate.

In the first round of high-stakes student-achievement tests, given last spring, only 39 of the state's 1,800 schools--or 2.2 percent--met the performance goals on exams linked to the state's Standards of Learning, according to results released by Virginia officials this month.

Widely hailed, as well as copied by a number of states, Virginia's standards also have been faulted for their heavy dependence on the memorization of facts--a charge that has been renewed with the publication of the test scores.

While a large percentage of students in Maryland and Massachusetts also flunked new standards-related tests when they were first given, national observers say Virginia's near-total failure rate is by far the worst.

"However you cut it, I don't recall anything this alarming on the first round," said Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group formed to help raise academic standards. "This is a sign that Virginia has seriously tried to raise the bar, but it's a pretty high hurdle for the state to try to clear."

Following are the percentages of Virginia students who passed the first administration of the state's Standard of Learning assessments.
English 54.7% 66.4% 66.0% 71.1%
Math 63.5 46.6 58.0 41.3
History 48.9 32.8 35.8 41.6
Science 63.0 59.3 71.1  62.8
SOURCE: Virginia Department of Education.

Under Virginia's school accountability plan, a school will lose its state accreditation unless 70 percent of its students pass a battery of tests in each of four subjects--English, mathematics, science, and history--by 2007. Starting with the Class of 2004, students must pass the tests to earn a high school diploma. The state has not yet determined the penalties if a school loses its accreditation.

Though many of the 27 individual tests that make up the battery require students to answer 70 percent of the questions correctly, others, such as the high school biology test, only require a passing score of 52 percent.

The Blame Game

With so much riding on the new exams, some teachers are fearful of reprisals if their students don't improve next year, said Marian Flickinger, the president of the 1,400-member Norfolk Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "Some teachers are afraid that they would be targeted as the problem if their kids don't pass. And principals are fearful that if their school doesn't do well, people will think something is wrong with their leadership," Ms. Flickinger said.

In the urban, 36,000-student Norfolk district, where only a handful of schools passed, teachers will need extra help from the state, such as resources for tutoring failing students, if schools are going to raise test scores significantly, Ms. Flickinger argued.

Even though most superintendents in the state supported raising academic standards, some are now saying that the low scores are forcing them to question the credibility of the tests as a true measure of student achievement.

Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools, said that students in his suburban, 154,000-student district generally score well above average on the SAT and other national achievement tests. Yet only 13 out of the district's 208 schools--or 6 percent--passed the new state exams.

Because of that disparity, "the state exams will be discounted because the results are so ridiculous that no one will pay attention to them," Mr. Domenech predicted.

He suggested that the high failure rate could be reduced if some tests didn't rely so heavily on memorizing facts. For example, only 32.8 percent of students in the state passed the 5th grade history test that is laden with factual questions on Virginia's role in the American Revolution.

Kirk P. Schroder, the state school board president, said he recognizes that the first round of test scores may be discouraging for many schools. Nevertheless, he said last week, the board will "absolutely not relax the rules or change the exams."

Focus on the Goal

Mr. Schroder, who was appointed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III last year, hopes educators and parents will use the test scores to focus on what needs to be done to raise achievement.

Along with new resources already in place, Gov. Gilmore, a Republican, recently called for an 18 percent increase in education funding, a chunk of which is earmarked for teacher training and remedial education.

"It's time now to get to work rather than point the finger of excuses," said Mr. Schroder. "This is a goal that does not kick in until eight years from now, and a lot can occur in eight years."

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 15

Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Va.
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