When the state Board of Education adopted the Standards of Learning (SOLs) in 1995 and declared passing the assessments a mandate to graduate beginning with the Class of 2004, many educators and parents predicted a sharp decline in the number of seniors receiving their diplomas.
As recently as last year, Fairfax County Public Schools was anticipating more than 1,000 students not graduating next year specifically due to the SOL requirement.
However, preliminary data from this year's SOLs show that the dire predictions may have been overinflated. The unofficial numbers have 330 students failing the English reading SOL test and 350 failing the English writing SOL test, both of which are required — considerably fewer than the 1,300 that failed those tests last year.
"If the numbers hold up, this is a significant improvement," said Daniel Domenech, superintendent of schools for Fairfax County. "But even at 330 students, we're still talking about a significant number of students not getting diplomas, and we will work with those students."
The school system is permitted to adjust the figures — students who entered a school after the 20th day of instruction, certain students designated as limited-English-proficient, and remediation recovery students can be excluded from the results — so the initial numbers could change. In addition, the school system is still cross-referencing the results to see how many students may have failed both tests.
ALTHOUGH THE INITIAL numbers may look more promising than a year ago, the impending SOL stipulation still has some worried that children with special needs and limited English proficiency will be hit the hardest next year.
“It’s wonderful the numbers are lower, but if it’s your child, the question is, now what?” said Donna Martinez, the mother of a child with Down syndrome and a school-system special-education teacher and advocate. "Do the numbers reflect socioeconomic status, special needs, outside factors? There is still an achievement gap that is compounded by language level, socioeconomic level and compounded with special education. There are a lot of tangible connections here between NCLB [the No Child Left Behind Act] and what will happen when they don’t graduate. Where will they go? Who gets them? My fear right now is they [the students] see the end and it’s a brick wall and they can’t get over.”
Domenech does not disagree: “Most of the kids we’re talking about are special-ed and ESOL [English for speakers of other languages], and they are the ones that will be denied a diploma. NCLB adds a whole different twist to the equation.”
The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates a 100-percent passing rate in all educational levels and racial categories by 2014, among other things. In Virginia, the SOL results will be one measure of compliance with the act.
The fact that Virginia has been using and refining the SOLs, since 1995 puts the school system in a better position as far as NCLB is concerned, said Judy Matlock, the school system’s high-school SOL training and remediation coordinator. She also said she is not surprised this year’s unofficial SOL results are better than most had expected.
“I think the kids really understand this is a barrier to graduation,” Matlock said. “My expectation was yes, we would have some kids that wouldn‘t walk across the stage; but until the requirement was real, it was hard to predict how many wouldn’t walk.”
Students have been taking the SOL tests since their creation, but in the past, the test scores only affected an individual school’s and an entire schools system’s accreditation standing. The results did not directly impact the students.
MATLOCK SAID THE school system made the graduation requirement for 2004 a target a couple of years ago, which got everyone thinking about it and brainstorming on what steps could be taken to ensure that students pass the tests.
The school system began an educational campaign, which included posters in the schools asking students if they were sure they were graduating and informing parents about the requirements. The information technology department also created searchable databases that allowed staff to track a student‘s SOL history. In addition, on the instructional side, the student accountability plan mandated summer school for students who were conditionally promoted, and intensive remediation classes were created for those who needed additional review or had failed the test. Students are permitted to retake failed SOLs.
Even so, Martinez is concerned about whether the right students are receiving the support they need, not just to graduate but to survive in life.
“I am very concerned about who is not making it and if they are getting the support for the long run,” Martinez said. “We are definitely concerned about the grade and making the graduation, but it’s one thing to walk across the stage, then what? It is important these students continue to be lifelong learners.”
The SOL requirement allows for a modified diploma for a small percentage of students with special needs. In most cases, the diploma is earned through alternate assessments geared specifically to that student’s needs. Martinez wonders what will be the effect of the modified diplomas and whether they could be a barrier to receiving a postsecondary education or even finding a job.
“To what degree is the alternate assessment a valid test demonstrating SOL knowledge?” Martinez said. “Any child lost is a significant concern.“
Domenech, for his part, is hopeful the SOL results will only get better. “I’m optimistic, and I know the numbers will improve by next June.”
Matlock said the official results are typically released in midsummer.