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March 6, 1999

Tech professor criticizes use of SOLs / Says test shouldn't control graduation, accreditation.

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Dr. Lawrence H. Cross can't believe the massive changes he's seeing in the state's public education arena. Standardized tests to determine whether a student will receive a high school diploma? Ludicrous, Cross said. Standardized tests to determine whether schools are doing their jobs correctly? Ridiculous, Cross said. Standardized tests being used as a way to raise academic standards? Absurd, Cross said.

Cross, a professor of educational research and measurement at Virginia Tech, gave the state's new standardized tests, the Standards of Learning, a verbal thrashing yesterday. He made his comments during a small group session of the Virginia Educational Research Association's annual conference, which was held in Chesterfield County. About 35 educational researchers attended the conference. The association is a nonprofit group with about 100 members whose mission is to serve the research and evaluation needs of professional educators in Virginia. Cross said the SOL tests are no better and no worse than any other standardized tests.

"It's not the test that's the bad guy, it's the use to which it's being put." His criticism comes at a time when educators, students and parents apparently are trying to make sense of the new tests, which are based on a tougher curriculum approved by the state Board of Education in 1995.

One of the hot-button issues of the SOLs revolves around the notion that student performance on the tests eventually will determine whether a school receives accreditation from the state. Beginning in the 2006-07 school year, 70 percent of a school's students must pass the tests for the school to remain accredited.

Based on the results of last spring's first round of SOL tests, only 2.2 percent of the state's public schools would meet Virginia's new accreditation requirements. That statistic, Cross said, has either made Virginia's public school system the laughing stock of the nation or the recipient of everyone's sympathy.

He said it's naive to think that any one item can be used to measure the quality of an educational program. The SOL tests also eventually will be used to determine whether students qualify for a high school diploma. Starting with the graduating class of 2004, students must pass at least six of 11 end-of-course exams to earn their diplomas.

Such a setup is based on the misconception that all children can learn challenging concepts, Cross said. That ideal, while inaccurate, is politically correct and popular among conservatives and liberals alike, he said, which explains the general lack of public criticism of the SOLs.

While Cross' assessment seemed to be accepted by most in attendance at the conference, not everyone agreed with him.

"If the kids are failing, then it's time to change the way we teach," said Dr. Mary L. Radnofsky, president of The Socrates Institute, a nonprofit educational corporation. The most important aspect of the SOL debate at this point isn't whether
you agree or disagree with the state's new philosophy on education, she said.

"Even if you hate the SOLs, this has given us an incredible opportunity to talk about education," she said.

© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.

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