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Survey Reveals Some Promise, Many Problems As Virginia Schools Strive To Meet SOLS

May 25, 2000 -- Although many students have mastered Virginia’s Standards of Learning, serious problems have risen from efforts to guide SOL instruction, according to a new study of 16 high schools across the state.

The study undertaken by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design at the University of Virginia shows that schools have responded to the SOLs in diverse ways. The schools’ reactions are described in a new center publication, "Initial Responses of Virginia High Schools to the Accountability Initiative."

"Our investigation detected a number of promising developments as well as some potential problems," said center director Daniel L. Duke. "It is still possible to address and correct the problems before the first students are denied a diploma and the first schools lose their accreditation."

The most positive indicator among the schools studied is that nearly all of them increased the students’ passing rates on tests measuring knowledge of English, mathematics, history and science. Such schools were characterized by a heightened level of cooperation among teachers and administrators and pride in the rise in student achievement.

All the schools in the study had examined and revised their curricula in the SOL areas, with the subject of mathematics being changed the most. Other promising results included increased quality control and development of special programs.

The study reveals numerous areas that threaten to diminish the effectiveness of the accountability initiative. Such problem areas include:

standardization of course content and instructional practice,

reduced course selection,

erosion of school climate,

complexity of school organization,

centralization of authority.

Center representatives investigated the schools’ early responses to the Standards of Learning in four areas: local policies, practices, programs and personnel. The study was carried out by conducting interviews with high school principals in addition to evaluating surveys of the principals’ perceptions of the impact of the accountability measures and reviewing documents, including each school’s "report card" on the SOL tests.

Four types of high schools were identified: low need/high ability, low need/low ability, high need/low ability and high need/high ability. A total of 16 schools, four in each category, were studied in fall 1999 and winter 2000. Because principals were assured of confidentiality, individual schools in the survey cannot be identified, Duke said.

"The schools facing the greatest challenge from the accountability initiative are the high need/low ability schools — the ones with relatively poor student performance on state tests and relatively low levels of financial resources," Duke said.

The researchers found ample evidence that teachers, knowing that they will be judged on how well their students perform on the SOL tests, tend to concentrate on the SOL objectives. At the same time, teachers of honors and advanced courses expressed fear that if students focus too much on the basic knowledge represented by the SOL objectives, they will be poorly prepared for handling challenging courses.

"One of the study’s most significant findings is that the majority of schools reported assigning their most capable teachers to teach courses in which students took the SOLs," Duke said.

The researchers found that the message this sends to teachers of non-SOL courses is that they are less important. This adds to the stress already being felt in the schools.

The researchers found that overall teachers and administrators experience increased pressure to help students pass the SOL tests. As a consequence, most principals acknowledged significant stress and pointed out that some teachers are choosing to retire early.

The study also shows that high schools, in order to reallocate resources to strengthen instruction in SOL courses, have eliminated electives and lower-track courses that do not lead to graduation credits. The principals said, for example, that enrollment in vocational programs has declined.

"It’s too early to tell what effect diminished choice in courses will have on students," Duke said.

Note to reporters: For copies of the report, contact the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design at (804) 982-2866. For more information on the study, contact Daniel Duke at (804) 924-3979.

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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