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The On-Going Debate Over Standardized Testing in Virginia

AP Photo / Alex Brandon, File

As lawmakers return to Richmond this year, many of them will be focused on reforming Virginia’s system of standardized testing.

OK, so one thing everyone agrees on is that standardized testing has gone too far. And that teachers spend too much time teaching to the test. But what should be done about that? Here’s where the disagreements start. 

“SOL tests were not designed for the purpose for which they are being used.”

That’s Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association. 

“They were not designed to measure teacher effectiveness. They were not designed to measure what children are learning.”

And so he says it’s about time lawmakers in Richmond face the facts. 

“The current system that we’re using does not work. Period. And we need to let that go, and we need to invest in finding a system that does work.”

Hold on a second, says Republican Delegate Jim LeMunyon. 

“I think there’s, certainly among Education Committee members in the House of Delegates, a commitment to standardized testing.”

He says that commitment is based in federal law and state law requiring standardized testing. And it’s a commitment that insures every student in Virginia has to answer the same questions. That’s why he and other Republicans are pushing back against a controversial move to create local assessments.

The current system that we're using does not work. Period. And we need to let that go, and we need to invest in finding a system that does work.

“The problem that creates is that you can’t compare a Fairfax to a Loudoun. You can’t compare Lynchburg to Virginia Beach. You can’t identify areas where students in schools and school divisions in some cases are struggling.” 

Identifying which students are struggling and which ones are not is perhaps the biggest flashpoint in education. 

“My personal request would be that they can take the test in their home language because, if they’ve only been here a year or two they may not understand the nuance of what the sentence is.”

That’s Diane Raulston, a member of the Prince William County School Board. 

“English is still the preferred language for all tests. That will never change. But if we want to see if we are educating all children no matter where they come from and no matter what their language is we need to have it in a language that they understand.”

Census records show that 20% of children in Prince William County speak Spanish at home rather than English. Raulston says allowing those children to take standardized tests in Spanish could more effectively track what they are leaning in school. But Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart disagrees. 

“That would be a huge disservice to children in our community. If you don’t learn English, you are not going to succeed in America.”

One issue that’s vexed lawmakers for years is how many tests should be administered. High school students currently take nine standardized tests. 

“Parents, teachers and students are exhausted of the testing culture.”

That’s state Senator Jeremey McPike, a Democrat from Prince William County. He agrees with those who are pushing to reduce the number of tests in high school from nine to five. He says that wouldn’t just prevent heartache. It would also save money.

“It’s close to over a million dollars per test. And so you are talking about millions of dollars saved right off the bat. We’ve got a ton of needs, whether it’s our Standard of Quality that we’ve been struggling to fund since the recession to school nurses to counselors in our schools.”

One issue that continues to divide lawmakers is what gets measured. Is it what a student knows at a given point in time? That’s how the system is currently set up. Or should it be a measurement of how much the student has grown since the last test? That’s what some lawmakers have as a goal heading into next year’s General Assembly session.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
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