Most Schools Failed, But Experts Call Va. Tests Fair

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A panel of testing experts has declared Virginia's new state exams fair and accurate a month after students' high failure rates on the high-stakes assessment were announced.

Virginia officials said last month that 97 percent of the state's schools had flunked the exams that eventually will determine whether schools are accredited and students graduate. Some district leaders immediately questioned whether the exams were a good measure of student achievement. ("Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Va.," Jan. 20, 1999.)

Only 39 of Virginia's 1,800 public schools--or 2.2 percent--met the performance goals, which are linked to the state's Standards of Learning, in the first round of tests students took last spring. Though admired for their rigor and copied by other states, Virginia's new standards have been criticized as relying too heavily on memorization of facts.

Virginia leaders hoped last week that the experts' declaration of the exams' "validity and reliability" would end the criticism.

"These initial evaluations are good," said Kirk P. Schroder, the state school board president. "I'm confident that with further work we can make our testing program a national model for excellence in measuring student achievement."

Under the accountability plan, 70 percent of a school's students must pass exams in four subjects by 2007 for the school to retain its accreditation. Starting with the Class of 2004, students must pass a battery of tests in order to graduate.

For their review, testing experts from Michigan State University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University compared the test results from the first round of Standards of Learning exams with those from other national and state assessments given to Virginia students.

Other Tests Compared

The panel concluded that the tests were valid because they adequately followed material covered in the standards. The experts also compared passing scores from the 27 individual tests taken by students in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades with the students' latest scores on the nationally used Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and Virginia's Literacy Passport Test.

"They looked to whether these tests were giving us wildly different assessments," and they didn't find that, said Cameron Harris, Virginia's assistant superintendent for assessment.

The panel also concluded that the exams were fair and reliable because students tended to perform consistently--whether passing or failing--throughout different parts of individual tests.

When scores were released last month, Fairfax County had the most schools passing the tests--13 schools out of 208--of any district in the state.

But Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of the suburban school system near Washington, rejected the panel's stamp of approval last week. His students' scores on the new tests didn't match up with their performance on national assessments, he said.

Students in the affluent 154,000-student district on average score above the 70th percentile on the Stanford-9; whereas 54 percent of students there, on average, passed the Standards of Learning tests.

"It's a significant difference. It does not make it valid," Mr. Domenech said.

Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, a national nonprofit group that advocates high standards, agreed that the state could make some changes. Ms. Barth suggested that the state could replace some of the fact-based questions with more short-response answers-- especially in the history exam, which had a high failure rate.

"They don't have to scrap the test," she said. "But they can make some adjustments."

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Page 3

Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Most Schools Failed, But Experts Call Va. Tests Fair
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