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VA: Educators see good, bad in tumbling math scores

By   /   July 16, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ORANGE — Early signs of plummeting math test scores are evoking complaints from some Virginia educators, but at least one national think tank suggests the decline is a healthy indication of increased rigor in the state’s K-12 academic program.

Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association. Courtesy: VEA

Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, said, “I heard enough anecdotally to wonder if somehow the idea of ‘rigor’ has been taken to unrealistic heights.

“I heard of students who were so flummoxed by some of the content of the test that they just proceeded to guess to get it over with. I don’t think this is what anyone had in mind when they established the new math standards.”

State officials, from Superintendent of Instruction Patricia Wright on down, had warned for nearly three years the new Standards of Learning exam for math would be considerably different — and harder — than its predecessor.

And, sure enough, reports are trickling out about scores are 20, 30 and even 40 points below the passage rates of 2010-11.

In Orange County, for example, third-graders scored 40 points below the previous year’s scores, decreasing the passage rate from 96 percent to 56 percent.

Declines of 27 points, 24 points and 20 points were recorded in the seventh-, fifth- and eighth-grade. That dropped those grades’ passage rates to 49 percent, 68 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

The state-set minimum rate for school accreditation is 70 percent.

In previous years, Orange, like the majority of school divisions, had little trouble hitting that mark. The county’s third- and fifth-graders registered passage rates of 96 percent and 92 percent in the 2010-11 year, both exceeding the state averages, said Jim Yurasits, the district’s director of accountability, data and school improvement.

“There’s a definite statewide trend of drastic cuts and strikingly (lower) results,” Yurasits told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. He said Orange was at the “upper end” of districts he has heard from unofficially. He declined to identify the districts.

The state Department of Education does not expect to release statewide results until August, DOE spokesman Charles Pyle said.

He said the state gave schools three years to gear up for the new, fully computerized exam, which contains fewer multiple choice questions and poses more challenging word problems.

Pyle explained the state’s accountability program averages scores over a three-year period, so a failure to meet the 70 percent threshold would not jeopardize a division’s accreditation.

For individual students, however, there are consequences. Those who fail to achieve a passing score on the SOL exam are denied class credit, even if they pass their course.

“We do not believe that there has been any rush to rigor in this area,” state Board of Education President David Foster wrote in a May 4 letter to Pamela Moran, president of the Virginia Association School Superintendents and chief of public schools in Albermarle County.

Foster said the changes in the math exam, approved unanimously by the state board, “reflect the view of successive boards that our students must master higher standards in mathematics to succeed in college and in the increasingly demanding global economy.”

At a state Board of Education meeting in April, one local superintendent presented two “bright and high-achieving” math students to testify that they labored “three to four hours” over the exam — and did so without a break of any kind because of test security.

Wright said the average test time was about two hours, a duration she considered appropriate for a test this rigorous.

Moran was unavailable for comment on deadline, but Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the Abermarle school district, predicted the county system would outperform dire predictions of a statewide 30 percent drop in the passage rate.

But Giaramita said Abermarle did not yet have official tallies, and offered that the schedule for implementing the test was “too ambitious.”

“We would have preferred a pilot approach,” he said, noting that districts didn’t have a full three years to prepare.

Students who failed the test will have repeated opportunities to re-take it. Giaramita said Abermarle is among the districts offering a summer math academy to help pupils pass the exam.

Amber Winkler, vice president for research at the Thomas Fordham Institute. Courtesy: Fordham Institute

Amber Winkler, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said her reform-minded organization gave a “C” to Virginia’s previous math exam.

“Perhaps they fixed some of the deficiencies since our review,” she said.

Winkler told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau:

“All eyes will be on Virginia since they are one of the few states that chose to go it alone and not adopt the (federal Common Core academic standards).” The state last month received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind program to continue developing its own rules and goals.

“Virginia’s SOLs are well-regarded in general and Virginia’s students score at or above the national average on the math (National Assessment of Educational Progress),” Winkler added.

But as the 2012 math scores show — contradicting humorist Garrison Keillor’s signature line about Minnesota — it appears that not all Virginia pupils are above average.

“I think (Virginia) feels the pressure to show everyone that they will indeed continue to up the ante and prove to the nation that they don’t need the Common Core to do right by kids. And I hope they’re right,” Winkler said.

Boitnott isn’t so confident. Though acknowledging she is not a math instructor and had no hand in designing the new exam, the VEA president and national board-certified teacher told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau:

“As I have said from the beginning with regard to SOLs, teacher-evaluation models and anything else that is ‘new’ and being tried for the first time, the devil is always in the details, and sometimes it is hard to anticipate unintended negative consequences of new initiatives.

“Was the steep drop (in test scores) necessary?” she asked.

Ironically, Yurasits of the Orange school system, reported that many students “felt good about the tests” — even as their scores tumbled.

Orange County schools math specialist Tracy Munger gave an example of how the latest exam was more difficult.

On last year’s math test, Munger related, fifth-graders might have encountered a one-step word problem involving one operation, such as: “A total of 355 chairs are needed for a school performance. There are 227 chairs already in place.  How many more chairs are needed?”

On the new test, Munger said fifth-graders encountered word problems requiring multiple steps and multiple operations.

“A typical question may have been: ‘A farmer has 1,457 apples and 678 pears. She will fill baskets using these pieces of fruit.  She will fill each basket with 24 pieces of fruit. What is the total number of baskets the farmer will be able to fill with these pieces of fruit?'”

Releasing his district’s results before others in the state, Orange Superintendent Bob Grimesey was up front and seemingly not looking for excuses.

“No one could present our students with a complete understanding of the new test until it was administered for the first time. … It appears that our pass rates followed the downward statewide trend.

“While this year’s pass rates may appear to be disappointing, it will help our teachers, principals and our students to know the new baseline,” he said in a statement.

Looking ahead, Virginia educators are also bracing for new, and presumably more rigorous, English and science SOL exams that will debut this fall.

In testimony at the House Education Committee in January, Superintendent Wright reported, “The Virginia Department of Education has been working in partnership with school divisions to prepare teachers and students for these more rigorous standards by providing resources and technical support. We will continue this effort as schools prepare for the new English and science tests.”

But Giaramita, in Abermarle, isn’t holding his breath. He said the school district has yet to see sample questions of the revamped English exam.


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.