SOL 2004: Better educated or S*** outta luck?

 Last fall, Charlottesville High surveyed its juniors and found that 70 percent were in good shape for the Standards of Learning tests they'll need to pass to graduate in 2004. Does that mean that 30 percent might not get their diplomas?

Local educators say no, that prospects are good for the first class that must pass SOL tests. But pass rates have been a problem in other states.

In Nevada, 12 percent of the Class of 2003 didn't get diplomas because they couldn't pass the math portion of the state test required for graduation. In Florida, nearly 13,000 students didn't graduate because they couldn't pass that state's exam.

A survey recently cited in the Washington Post found that a majority of Americans believe state standards and exams are a good idea– until it's their senior who doesn't graduate. Across the country, the large number of students who didn't pass state standards is becoming a public relations nightmare.

Could the same thing happen in Virginia in 2004, when 12th graders have to pass the state's Standards of Learning tests to graduate?

State and local officials say no. Nonetheless, in early June, to avoid a similar PR fiasco, Governor Mark Warner earmarked $400,000 in federal funds to kick off a crash course to help those at risk.

"I don't believe there's a statewide crisis," says former State Education Board chair Kirk Schroder. "I do believe there are pockets in the state where kids have traditionally been at risk."

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle educators admit some worry about how the 1,000 members of the Class of 2004 will perform.

"I can tell you that it's front and center in our minds," says Kevin Hughes, who's charged with school improvement in Albemarle County. "We are very much shooting for every kid to walk across the stage and get their diploma. It's not business as usual. We're working to get students the help they need to pass the courses and pass the tests."

The rising seniors took SOL exams in the spring. All of the results aren't in, but Albemarle County does know that 91 percent passed the writing test, up 7.2 points from the 2002 tests, according to Hughes. The remaining 9 percent who didn't pass can retake the exam as many times as they need to.

And Hughes expects to see a bump in passing scores for reading, too, because in 2002 students weren't taking the tests to graduate. "When you add that kind of stake, the pass rate improves," he points out.

Hughes sees little danger that there will be students who pass their course work but can't pass the SOL tests. "The state board has developed safeguards," he says. "If a student can demonstrate mastery of information, that can be presented as evidence to a locally established committee."

At Charlottesville High School, after identifying the 30 percent of students who could have a problem passing the mandatory exams, intense individual guidance began, says dean of students Therese Titus. "We've been doing a lot of pulling up and plugging away at what they need," she says. "It will not be 30 percent who don't pass."

Before the SOL tests bocame mandatory, about nine percent of seniors in Virginia don't graduate for one reason or another. At CHS, less than five percent don't graduate, says Titus.

The first class of Virginia seniors who must pass SOL tests to graduate have to pass six tests of which the reading and writing tests are mandatory. But for the other four tests, students aren't limited to the traditional math, social studies, or science, which will become mandatory in 2007.

There are almost 200 options, according to Schroder. For example, technically oriented students may use the certifications for satellite dish installer or gas furnace service technicians as part of their SOL test credits.

"The child who will not graduate in 2004 is a student who either can't pass an 11th grade reading or writing test, or who cannot pick up the vocational and technical skills needed for employment," says Schroder, who worked on implementation of SOLs while he was on the state board from 1998 to 2002.

"I don't think we're doing a child a service by expecting anything less," he adds.

E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, still believes Standards of Learning and its exams are a good idea.

"If you think what the aim of education is– to be a citizen and earn a living, that's where the literacy comes in," he says. "If people are ruling themselves, they need to read. That's fundamental to democracy."

Literacy plays an important economic factor, too. "It gives people a reasonably equal chance that schooling doesn't depend on who your parents are," says Hirsch. "If you think about those aims, SOLs are absolutely critical."

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