GATE CITY — More rigorous questions and mandated changes in how tests are taken combined to have a negative impact on Standards of Learning scores for schools in Scott County, according to preliminary figures for 2012-13 released earlier this week by the Virginia Department of Education.
While the SOL scores for Scott County were lower than in the past — with some dropping as much as 15 points from last year — the pass rates for students in Scott County were still above the state average in all four subjects tested.
School officials said while they were disappointed with the lower than usual scores, they didn’t come as a surprise due to major testing changes that have been implemented in the recent past.
“Over the past four years, the state of Virginia has not only changed the standards of what our students have to know, but the rigor of the tests,” Scott County Schools Director of Testing Tammy Quillen said. “We’ve gone from simple multiple choice tests to technology-enhanced items that a students has to choose all correct answers, click-and-drag, fill in the blank. In writing, we have gone from paper and pencil to fully online. That’s a huge change for us.
“The critical thinking and processing skills have greatly increased, which is a good thing. That’s what we want for our students, but for so long we’ve taught in a choose one answer world and it takes time to get to where we really do need to be with higher-level thinking, and that’s what the state has done. And like with everything, it takes a few years for the teachers to learn the new methods for the curriculum and the types of questions and how they are asked on the test.”
The new standards for math testing went into effect two school years ago, while the changes for English and science were first reflected in the just-released figures.
Scott County’s lowest SOL score came in mathematics, with 74.9 percent of students passing. That number was still higher than the state average of 70.6 percent and up 0.3 points over Scott County’s 2011-12 score in that subject.
English, which includes reading and writing, fell 15.9 points to 77.6 when compared to last year’s SOLs. Despite that drop, Scott County students still beat the state average rate of 75.
The school system posted higher numbers in both science and history, both those scores also experienced a drop from 2011-12.
The number of students passing science SOLs fell 7.1 points to 89.2 percent, while history dropped 2.6 points to 89.2. State SOL averages in those subjects were 81.2 and 86.1, respectively.
“It’s not that our scores aren’t good, they are still good,” Quillen said. “It’s just that we’ve gotten used to extreme excellence.”
Scott County’s lowest SOL score for 2010-11 — the last year before the new testing standards were put in place — was a 93.
Despite the lower numbers, Scott County Schools Superintendent John Ferguson said he had no doubt the scores would begin to rise again as students and teachers become more acclimated to the differences in the tests.
“In comparison, we have fallen behind some of the other divisions in Region 7,” Ferguson said. “But at the same time, I know how competitive our teachers, our administrative staff and our communities are in terms of not only athletics, but in the classroom as well. As I’ve said before, Scott County has always risen to the challenge, and I still firmly believe that.”
Quillen said faculty and staff have already started working on strategies to help improve those scores.
“We’re working now to analyze the date to see if there are any patterns that show up,” Quillen said. “We’ve not really seen one, though, and there is a report that we receive of student performance by question, and we analyzed that data the first pre-service day with our teachers. They would get together and look through them to see specifically what areas we were high in and where our weaknesses were so we can develop a strategy to help students with the questions they had the most problem with.”
In addition to identifying those problem areas, Quillen said the school system has also purchased new textbooks and curriculum that better reflect what the SOL tests contain.
“We’ve put a lot of things into place this year, so we should be able to see a difference,” Quillen said.
Even with the lower 2012-13 scores, Quillen said the system met its federal measurable objectives and is still on course to maintain its Virginia state accreditation this year.
“Students in Scott County are still receiving a high-quality education,” Quillen said. “We are just now taking a step higher in the critical thinking for students, and that’s good.”
Quillen did say, however, that it’s critical for the school system to increase its SOL scores for 2013-14 to see its accreditation continue in the future.