Opting Out of the SOLs

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Virginia’s Standards of Learning was a response (and rejoinder) to the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into national law in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush, initially holding only individual schools accountable through mandatory student testing.

Seven years later, under President Barack Obama, the “Race to the Top” educational grant program was established, tying federal funds to teacher (and administrative) performance through mandatory test scores. Like many public school state programs reacting to these new federal mandates, Virginia’s SOL testing was meant to set achievement standards for basic core subjects from kindergarten to 12th grade in schools across the commonwealth. But some argue it’s just too much.

“The closer you get to the classroom, the more people think there is too much testing,” says Robert Schaeffer, co-author of Standing Up to the SAT and the public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts that bills itself as The National Center for Free and Open Testing. “Public school parents, teachers, students, school administrative—even School board members and community leaders—are a key part of the reform movement. They see the damage being done on a day-to-day basis,” he says, adding that he’s “pleased that Virginia, among other states, is stepping away from testing overkill.”

In 2014, largely due to pressure from parents and teachers, the Virginia Department of Education (DOE) reduced the number of SOL assessments from 34 to 29 per school year. “The Governor’s Committee on Education proposed fewer SOLs, especially in fourth grade, and some rotations in English and History,” Carll says.

A FAQ at the DOE website states, “The Board of Education and the advisory SOL Innovation Committee are studying further steps to reduce the burden of testing while maintaining accountability.”

While only a small number of parents in Coastal Virginia are choosing to opt their kids out of testing, the numbers are growing. There were 681 statewide tests coded as parent refusals in the 2013–14 school year. Curiously, for 2014–2015, Virginia’s Department of Education split the numbers into two categories.

“Virginia schools administered 2.8 million SOL tests,” says Charles Pyle, the director of communications for the Virginia DOE. “Of those tests, 694 were coded as ‘student refusals,’ and 1,460 were coded as ‘parent refusals,’ indicating that the school received a communication from the home that the parents did not want the student to participate in SOL testing.” However you slice it, opt-out rates in Virginia more than tripled.

“Nationally, it has exploded,” Schaeffer says, adding that there were more than 500,000 refusals from state testing last year across the U.S. “It tripled in 2015 compared to 2014, which is the first year of any significant ‘opt-out’ numbers nationally.” The movement’s effectiveness varies from state to state, he says, naming New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and New Mexico as states where ‘opting out’ of standardized testing is in vogue.

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