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Virginia looking to cancel state SOL testing amid coronavirus pandemic

Virginia looking to cancel state SOL testing amid coronavirus pandemic

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Virginia’s education leaders want to cancel the state’s Standards of Learning testing this year as schools remain closed in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

The state Education Department announced Tuesday that the agency will seek “maximum flexibility for schools and students to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, including relief from federal and state requirements related to testing.”

The U.S. Department of Education said last week that it is weighing scrapping the required annual tests for closed schools.

“This is an unprecedented situation with schools closed statewide for two weeks and the very real possibility of a significantly longer shutdown,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said.

“VDOE has advised school divisions of the flexibility they already have to delay Standards of Learning testing, but it is clear that we now have to take additional steps to ensure that schools and students — especially seniors completing their graduation requirements — are not adversely impacted by circumstances beyond their control.”

This would be the first time SOLs have been canceled, agency spokesman Charles Pyle confirmed.

Gov. Ralph Northam last week ordered every K-12 school in the state to close through at least March 27. Richmond Public Schools has already announced an extension on that closure, shuttering its 44 schools until at least April 13.

Northam’s decision came as eighth-graders and high school students in the state were taking SOL writing tests.

In a news release, the Virginia Department of Education said it has already extended statewide testing windows for all SOL tests, but the agency is “planning for further flexibility.”

“Given what we are now hearing about the potential duration of the coronavirus pandemic, we now have to seek further flexibility related to state testing. To do this, the commonwealth must have relief from the annual testing requirements under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act,” Lane said. “Last week, the U.S. Department of Education said it would consider issuing waivers for individual schools impacted by COVID-19. We are beyond that now, and ask our federal partners for a process to grant statewide relief so states and schools can focus on the health and well-being of students.”

ESSA, the replacement for the controversial No Child Left Behind, requires annual testing in third through eighth grades in reading and math, while requiring states to test students in science at least once during elementary, middle and high school.

Guidance released by the federal Education Department on March 12 said the agency would consider waiving the requirements, an action that is likely to have long-term effects in how low-performing schools are identified and helped, and how schools will receive accountability ratings that are also mandated under federal law.

“In cases where a school has been closed for a period of time, the assessment results still provide useful information about where individual students and groups of students will need support in the following school year,” the guidance says.

“However, due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a state to administer some or all of its assessments, in which case the department would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances.”

Several states, including Colorado, Texas and Washington, have already announced plans to cancel standardized testing this year.

Dale Chu, a Colorado-based education consultant who has written on the subject, said he has “reservations” about canceling the testing, but said those worries would be “moot if schools close for the rest of the year.”

“We need this testing data because so many of our other school systems are tied to testing,” Chu said, referencing teacher evaluations, among other things. “If you actually outright cancel it, there’s a domino effect.”

Dan Gecker, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said the governing body will also look at the state’s accreditation regulations, which weigh test results as one of the factors in a school’s rating.

“These are extraordinary times, and it would not be fair to our students, teachers, principals and other educators to have the accreditation ratings of their schools suffer next year because of the coronavirus pandemic,” Gecker said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to meet electronically at 1 p.m. Friday after canceling its in-person meetings scheduled for Thursday.

Lane has also told agency staff to review state laws and regulations related to graduation requirements “to determine what steps must be taken to ensure that seniors who would otherwise graduate this spring are not denied diplomas.”

“I want students and parents to know that Governor Northam and I are committed to taking every step possible to minimize the impact of coronavirus on students and to ensure that our seniors are able to graduate,” Lane said. “This includes exploring exemptions from requirements unrelated to coursework for students due to graduate this spring.”

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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