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Carrie Coyner column: Covid-19 shows that student testing must evolve: It's time for growth based assessments in Virginia
Education Issues

Carrie Coyner column: Covid-19 shows that student testing must evolve: It's time for growth based assessments in Virginia

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As a parent, a former Chesterfield County School Board member and now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, I deeply am saddened by COVID-19’s negative impact on the education and futures of so many of our students. The pandemic has confirmed what many Virginia parents, students and teachers already knew — educational opportunities for children in Virginia profoundly are inequitable. Some children currently are receiving state-of-the-art online instruction, with face-to-face time with teachers. Other children are struggling to access the internet, feeling isolated and falling behind.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s primary way of measuring student performance is based on a 20-year-old, high-stakes testing regime that is too inflexible to adapt to this new situation.

Virginia developed the Standards of Learning exams (SOLs) in the 1990s in response to a decline in student achievement. At the time, this regime of standards and high-stakes tests was at the cutting edge of education, and put hard data behind the frustrations of many minority and low-income families who saw their children neglected. The tests forced the commonwealth to acknowledge and begin addressing these inequities.

Yet in 20 years, we also have seen the flaws. Given the end-of-year timing, Virginia’s SOL tests provide no real-time information to teachers on how to meet the needs of their students. The regime requires immense resources, and too much “teaching to the test.” It causes anxiety for students. The tests provide neither useful information on student progress, nor guidance on how to help students grow.

COVID-19 has further demonstrated the futility and unfairness of these tests. They are not informative enough to help us understand how students are faring under these challenging conditions, and not fair enough to account for the disparate circumstances in which students are learning. As a result, the tests could not be administered in the spring of 2020 and the Virginia Department of Education likely will omit certain tests this spring.

Recognizing these shortcomings and experiencing this crisis should provide the necessary urgency to update and transform our SOLs. In the 2021 General Assembly, I will introduce a bill to move our third- to eighth-graders from our current high-stakes, end-of-the-year testing to a “through-year” growth-assessment model. Rather than take a single test with a one-time proficiency score, students will take shorter tests throughout the year to see their progress. The data will show at what grade level students are performing, how much they have grown over the year and what they need to learn to get to grade level if they are not already there. This new testing system will benefit students, teachers, schools and policymakers.

Every student, whether capable of advanced classes or still struggling to read, deserves the opportunity to advance. Individualized growth assessment testing will allow this to happen. Students at all levels will receive the more personalized instruction they need to continue their academic growth and feel confident at school.

Teachers also will benefit, with more time for teaching and better data to help them guide their students to their full academic potential. Schools will be evaluated on how they help students grow, allowing schools serving low-income communities in particular to better understand what is working and where they need to improve.

With more granular data on student growth as well as the proficiency scores that my proposal also will provide, state officials can better allocate resources where they most are needed to close achievement gaps.

While such changes would be transformative for students across the commonwealth, they are not radical. Virginia students in kindergarten through third grade already take a low-stakes growth assessment called the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) to help teachers craft reading instruction and identify intervention needs. Many districts also use quarterly Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments to track student learning. These are examples of growth-based assessments. By changing the SOLs to foster growth, Virginia would allow all students to benefit. Other states already are ahead of us. North Carolina, Georgia and Nebraska are just a few examples of states that are making growth assessment central to their education systems.

COVID-19 has stolen jobs, disrupted schools and threatened our institutions. But it also has revealed how we can do better for our children. Virginia’s outdated model of high-stakes, end-of-year testing fails students, parents, teachers and schools. We know there is a better way. We can deliver excellence and equity in education for all Virginia students. A through-year growth assessment model will move us closer to this goal.

Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, represents the 62nd District in the House of Delegates. Contact her at:

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