Yearly state Standards of Learning test results for schools are like annual performance appraisals for workers. Both SOLs and performance reviews provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses, and spotlight areas where gains have been made and on those where improvement is needed.
SOLs and other standardized tests can be helpful if used in this diagnostic way. They are decidedly less benevolent if all schools do is “teach to the test” — that is, if real learning takes a back seat to numbers on a paper. Fortunately, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s response to the results each year has been more learning-based than score-driven.
Crawley’s reaction to this year’s mixed bag of SOL results — scores in some areas inched upward while others slid back slightly — was to announce schools will focus on improving professional development for teachers and adjust the curriculum to better integrate writing instruction across all subjects. He also said better monitoring of student performance, particularly in math, would enable earlier support intervention. These measures are all encouraging.
There is one area where ACPS performance deserves a special shout out: significant progress has been made in closing the achievement gap between white students and minorities, those with special needs and other so-called subgroups.
SOL scores of minority, economically disadvantaged and students with learning differences have increased dramatically across subjects over the past three years. Progress in this realm long has been elusive, and sustained improvement is cause for celebration.
But there is also a less rosy underside to this year’s scores. For instance, 32 percent of ACPS students failed the SOL math test, while 31 percent failed the writing section. It is sobering to realize that almost a third of ACPS students are not proficient at either writing or math.
And at Jefferson-Houston School, which is still without full accreditation from the Virginia Department of Education, a whopping 60 percent of students failed the writing portion of the SOL. Yes, this year’s pass rate of 40 percent was significantly up from 28 percent a year ago, but it is still far from acceptable.
This year’s overall plateauing of scores was not unexpected given the dramatic, across-the-board gains that were attained last year, when 14 of the 16 ACPS schools saw increased pass rates in reading and math. This kind of plateauing is a statistical norm.
For instance, the batting average of Washington Nationals infielder Daniel Murphy has jumped about 70 points over 2015. Next year, a regression of some sort is far more likely than an- other significant increase.
The same is true of revenues from established companies, where major jumps year after year are difficult to sustain. The goal — whether in schools, the corporate world or athletics — is an overall upward trend until a level of excellence is reached and then maintained.
So, while there is clearly more work to be done, we view these SOL results and Crawley’s response to them as part of an overall movement in the right direction.