(L-R) Albemarle School Board Members Ned Gallaway and Steve Koleszar with Delegates Steve Landes and Rob Bell, and ACPS Superintendent Pam Moran

Officials from Charlottesville and Albemarle Schools are hoping their students take fewer standardized tests in the coming years.

At recent meetings with the area’s Virginia General Assembly delegation, officials from both divisions cited reforming the Standards of Learning tests as a priority.

On Tuesday, County officials argued that students and teachers are hamstrung by tests that are measuring the wrong type of knowledge.

“The SOLs were designed in the 1990s and they reflect 20th century education,” Albemarle School Board Chair Steve Koleszar said. “What’s really happened in the ensuing 15-20 years since that system was put in place is that what it means to be educated really has changed.”

“It used to be an educated person had knowledge at his fingertips, and knew where the reference books were to get additional knowledge,” Koleszar added. “But now to be educated is to be able to do things, to be able to apply knowledge, to be able to do quick research on the internet and then synthesize and create new things.”

Charlottesville School Board Chair Juan Wade said there are too many tests.

“There are 34 of these high-stakes tests that are required of our students in grades 3-11,” Wade said at a press conference Monday, “and each of these tests requires a considerable amount of preparation and cause anxiety within our students.”

Instead of what both divisions are calling an “over-reliance” on high-stakes standardized testing, local schools officials say project-based learning and assessments that test critical thinking are the way to go.

“We’ve started, as a division, to internally use much more task-based assessments,” Koleszar said, “things like the College Workforce Readiness Assessment that’s a case-based test that is much more about writing and about what students can do.”

“A perfect example…is Buford Middle School and the new STEM lab,” Wade said about project-based learning in Charlottesville. “Students can work on actual science projects, experiment, make mistakes, determine what mistakes they’ve made, and correct them, things that really are hard to measure when they’re taking those tests.”

Albemarle County Public School Superintendent Pam Moran said Virginia could improve curriculum, which would ultimately alter what gets tested.

“If you look at math internationally, the expectations for standards that kids are expected to be able to master from kindergarten to 8th grade is probably about 50 percent of the content that we put in,” Moran said. “We build curriculum that represents what I call ‘the kitchen sink.’”

“That’s the kind of thing that I think we could address and actually improve the quality of assessments and cut down the expectations of what teachers feel like they’ve got to be accountable for covering,” Moran added. “I bet if we did that, our kids would be more competitive internationally.”

At the November 11 legislative session with the Charlottesville School Board, Delegate David Toscano (D-57) said he supported SOL reform.

“I philosophically believe that there are too many tests,” Toscano said. “And I also believe that local school divisions ought to be able to come up with their own accountability standards for figuring out how people are performing.”

But Representatives Rob Bell (R-58) and Steve Landes (R-25) are concerned about the potential backsliding on accountability measures SOL reform might bring.

“There are two groups that have been concerned about the SOLs, and have been for the last decade, but they have absolutely nothing in common except they want to junk the SOLs,” Bell said.

“The first group are the high-performing teachers, students, and systems who are headed off for college,” Bell added. “Category two are the poor-performing school districts that can’t meet the expectations…and because that is an entirely different problem that leads to an entirely different solution.”

Reforming the SOLs to meet the needs of both of these groups, Landes said, is the “crux of the problem.”

“We know how to solve the problem from the standpoint of the kids who are going to college,” Landes said. “It’s the lower-income homes that don’t have the resources that some of us are a little bit skeptical about how they’re going to be able to deal with this type of assessment.”

“What we don’t want to do, I think we all would agree, is see further separation from the individuals that are achieving and the ones who aren’t,” Landes added.

As of November 18, Albemarle and Charlottesville have joined 43 other schools divisions around the state that adopted resolutions to reform SOL testing.

Heading into January’s General Assembly session, Bell believes that a push to make SOL tests harder might deter lower-performing division from continuing to offer their support.   

Despite the concern, however, Bell said there is momentum in Richmond for a change.    

“I think there’s been a steady interest in this for many years,” Bell said. “If there is a test, which is a better test, but that is objectively scored and we can compare Augusta to Greene to Albemarle using this test, this is a doable proposition.”