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Mixed bag with SOL test scores

Mecklenburg makes some gains, still lags behind state pass rates on half of all tests / September 03, 2014
A newly released batch of test scores shows the Mecklenburg County school division making the grade on 16 of 33 assessments — a performance that puts county schools squarely in the mix with other divisions around the region.

The results show Mecklenburg students leaving the system with solid reading and writing test scores. Also, the share of students passing the Algebra I SOL jumped from 53 percent to 71 percent.

Overall, however, the county division showed only modest gains in SOL pass rates from a year earlier. The data was released last week by the Virginia Department of Education, which compared results from the 2013-2014 and 2012-2013 school years.

The comparison encompassed scores on 34 separate SOL tests; Mecklenburg does not administer the geography SOL.

In a majority of instances, pass rates rose from the prior school year, although many of the increases left the division well short of the state’s required pass rate of 70 percent in most subjects.

SOL testing starts in the third grade and continues through students’ elementary and secondary school years.

Some of the largest upswings at Mecklenburg County schools were witnessed in the area of math. Aside from the jump in the pass rate for Algebra I students, third graders improved with a 59 percent pass rate, up from 39 percent the year before. In seventh grade math, the pass rate rose from 30 percent to 39 percent.

However, the pass rate for eighth grade math students tumbled to 17 percent from an already dismal 25 percent.

Deputy Superintendent Melody Hackney said this week that she and others are analyzing the data to identify strengths and weaknesses in the instructional program so the practices that work in the classroom can be applied elsewhere. A recent change should boost the effort — the adoption of a uniform, standardized curriculum for Mecklenburg County schools

“Getting everyone on the same page instructionally, I think, is going to make a huge difference,” she said.

She said the standard curriculum should help the local division identify the causes of faltering academic performance — whether it’s the quality of teaching or a shortcoming with “the fidelity of the program” — and correct them.

She also said the county division, like all Virginia schools, must adjust to recent changes in the SOL tests that have made them more rigorous and demanding of deeper learning skills.

“It is a process where you have to align your instruction, your assessments, your teaching methodology to a new set of standards,” she said.

Hackney added that she is especially hopeful of achieving gains in math with adoption of the Cortez Math program, which was introduced in the prior school year at the sixth grade level and is now being used in other grades.

“Are we going to be watching that?” said Hackney, referring to Cortez, a computer-based remediation program, and its impact on math SOLs. “Absolutely. But I can tell you there’s been a lot of research on that product and it’s very clear — a 93 percent pass rate.”

Elsewhere in the region, the closest comparison to Mecklenburg County was the Halifax County school division — which achieved a 70 percent pass rate on 17 of 34 SOL tests. Charlotte County schools exceeded the benchmark on 26 SOL tests; Prince Edward and Brunswick, on 11 tests; Lunenburg, on 18 tests.

Research has shown that standardized test results correlate closely with socioeconomic factors and community poverty. A 2010 Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) study of Virginia’s SOL tests found that test scores across ethnic and racial categories fall when students hail from economically disadvantaged homes.

Statewide, schools continue to deal with the ramifications of more rigorous SOL tests, a reform that has been implemented over a period of several years. The Virginia Department of Education issued a report five years ago that showed only 15 schools statewide were “accredited with warning” — in other words, lagging on federal requirements. The number is now up to some 600 schools.

Across Virginia, DOE officials hailed the overall improvement on math SOL tests, which were toughened three years ago. Statewide, 74 percent of students passed the mathematics assessment for their grade level or course, compared with 71 percent during 2012-2013. Math SOLs are administered in grades 3-8, along with end-of-course tests in Algebra I and II and Geometry.

Full results, by individual school and local school division, are available on-line at

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