By MIKE WILLIAMS
Sherry Williams has spent the past several months on a personal crusade.
Her crusade is aimed, she says, at making the parents of elementary and middle school students in Pulaski County Schools know they can opt their children out of the dreaded Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.
And while school officials acknowledge Williams is technically correct, that students can be opted out of the tests, they believe doing so will hurt the school system’s accreditation efforts – and could put students in a bad spot come high school when opting out of tests isn’t an option, and receiving a diploma depends on passage of the high stakes tests.
Williams’ saga began nine months ago when her child did not pass an SOL test. Williams said she was upset over how her child learned they had failed.
“The ones who failed were told in front of the entire third grade classroom. They were all crying in front of their class. That upset me,” Williams stated.
It also upset her that failing the SOL meant her child would have to go to summer school for remediation, according to her understanding of the school system’s policy.
Williams said summer school conflicted with the family’s vacation plans.
She said she contacted school officials and learned that students scoring between 375 and 399 would be remediated during the next school year, with students scoring below 375 being remediated in summer school.
At that point, Williams said she learned that parents actually had the option to opt their child out of the SOL test.
“My question was why, if I could have opted my child out of the SOL, why not summer school? He didn’t have to take the test anyway to begin with because the Department of Education offers the ‘opt out.’ I was told that, because he had taken the test and failed, he had to go to summer school,” Williams recalled.
Not only did summer school clash with her family’s vacation plans, it also posed problems in getting her child picked up after school.
“I work full time,” Williams said. “Summer school closes at 1:30 p.m. I’m not at home. My husband isn’t at home. My Dad passed away and my Mom isn’t well enough to do that. Putting him in daycare from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. is an issue, too.”
Williams asked if there were any options for her. “I had heard that you could remediate at home,” Williams said.
Eventually Williams received the workbooks, worksheets and other classroom material needed to remediate her child from home. She recorded the time she spent working with her child and said he actually received more instruction than the students received in summer school.
Williams first appeared in June 2014 before the Pulaski County School Board to tell her story. She has attended every regular monthly school board meeting since except one.
“I think the kids really are highly stressed over these tests,” Williams said. “Even the ‘A’ students are stressed. They’re getting sick to their stomach – vomiting, diarrhea, and hives – leading up to the day of the test. Then they are nervous until the test scores come back.
“I think if we took the burden off kids over possibly failing the test and having to go to summer school, the kids could probably focus more on the test and it would result in them having higher scores. But they’ve done this for years – if you don’t pass the test, you have to go to summer school,” Williams said.
Williams pointed to a letter sent home by Pulaski County Schools in January to parents of students in grades 3 – 8, which states that students who “earn a score of 399 or below on the reading and/or math Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments will be mandated to attend summer school.”
“When mandated to attend summer school, students must attend or the parents / guardians may be subject to a truancy referral which may result in a referral to Juvenile Court,” the letter stated.
Williams said she viewed the letter as misleading and intimidating.
“Threatening a truancy referral when the test isn’t even mandated to begin with,” she exclaimed with a questioning tone.
Williams said she ignored the letter and several days later received a second letter acknowledging her decision to opt her children out of the SOL tests.
“Every year you have the option to have your student not participate in Standards of Learning assessments,” the letter stated. The letter went on to state, however, that graduation requirements in Virginia require a minimum of six verified credits for graduation.
“A verified credit is granted for a course if the student successfully passes the course AND is successful on the Standard of Learning assessment associated with the course. Thus, if you wish for your student to receive a diploma from any high school in the Commonwealth of Virginia, he will have to participate in Standards of Learning assessment when he enters high school,” the letter concluded.
Williams said she understands the verified credit requirement, but noted that there is an effort being made at the state level – led by the principal at Salem High School – to change the law so that there are other ways to verify the credits other than through an SOL test.
Williams said she has had no response from her complaints to the school board, and noted that during one meeting a board member told her that they had heard “no other complaints” from parents on the subject.
“A lot of parents don’t know they have rights and options to choose from,” Williams said. “Some don’t want to stand up here (at the school board meetings) and be subjected to what might come right back at them (from board members’ comments).”
Williams acknowledges that parents opting out their children can hurt the school’s accreditation. “I don’t want that, but I still believe parents should know they have options,” she said.
“I don’t think students should be singled out or be made to feel like a failure for failing this one test,” Williams continued. “Students and teachers need to be proud of their work and what they have accomplished all year from August to May, and not just be judged on one test taken on one day of the school year. Even teachers are evaluated on that one test,” Williams said, adding that teachers need to be evaluated based on how much growth the student has made the entire year.
Williams also noted that other school divisions in the region don’t conduct summer school, but remediate students the following school year.
She said one official at a neighboring school division said their remediation occurs in a class called “Enrichment and Remediation,” with students divided into groups according to the type and amount of remediation they need. She said the same process takes place today at Riverlawn Elementary School in a class called “Reading Recovery.”
She wonders why that can’t be the process all over the county.
What does Williams want?
“I want the school system to inform all parents and guardians of their rights regarding the SOLS so they can make the right choices for their child,” Williams said.
Dr. Tom Brewster, School Superintendent in Pulaski County, doesn’t necessarily disagree with Williams over the over-emphasis placed on SOL tests. He says he also agrees that parents should know that there are alternatives to summer school.
“I believe we have worked with parents and provided them with their alternatives over the years,” Brewster said.
Brewster noted that with the summer feeding program offered by schools today, many parents have embraced summer school, and there is not a lot of resistance.
He said that if a parent comes to school officials and says they will be on vacation during summer school, “we have an alternative we can offer.”
Brewster said if parents choose to remediate their student at home, they would sign off on the fact they provided instruction at home and the remediation would be complete.
In March, the Department of Education approved a plan to allow students in elementary and middle school grades who failed a test by a narrow margin to retake the test prior to the end of the school year.
These “expedited retakes” would take place after two or three days of remediation.
Expedite retakes have been allowed at the high school level since 2000 for students who fail end-of-course exams linked to diploma requirements.
“We celebrate small victories in Virginia,” Brewster said about the change at the elementary and middle school levels, explaining that students could immediately receive three or four days of remediation in the area of the test they failed then re-take the test.
“If we can get in there and immediately remediate and test, it will help us tremendously toward improving pass rates. Students will still have to take the whole test, but we can zero in on the problem areas and then get them tested. I wish we could give partial tests, but they have to take it all. You take what you can get.”
Brewster said the school system sends out a letter about the SOLs and summer school early in the year, then sends out a second letter targeted at those scoring less than passing.
“I have no problem with the letter saying that if you have a problem with the summer school dates you can contact your principal for alternatives,” Brewster said.
However, Brewster said he doubts any school division tells parents they can opt their students out of the tests. “We’re not required to do that, and I’m not sure we should,” he added.
“If parents have opted their students out of the tests from Pre-K to 8th grade, then all of a sudden they have put their high school child in an environment where the student will be required to take the tests in order to verify credits to get a diploma. They will then be engaged in standardized testing for the first time and that will put a lot of pressure on them. They will have to pass the tests in order to get their verified credits to graduate,” Brewster said.
“If you don’t start testing until the ninth grade, then I fear it will be similar to what happened with the SOL tests in the beginning. There will be a lot of failures,” he said.
Brewster said he knew of no school division that sends the message to parents that they can opt their students out of SOL testing. “Particularly because it is high stakes testing that does eventually play a role in whether or not a student does graduate,” he said. If they do send out the opt-out message, Brewster said it probably would be found in a student handbook somewhere. “I’m not sure it would be on the website of the Department of Education. You might find it in some policy language or the code,” he added.
Brewster said it is the state that mandates the emphasis on testing, and that local school policy is based upon what the State Code requires.
Brewster pointed to a recent report by the Washington Post on “opting out” of tests in Virginia.
The Post article notes that the Virginia Department Education issued guidelines that require students enrolled in public schools to take the state’s SOL tests.
The guidelines also, however, acknowledge that some parents may refuse the tests. In those cases, the Post reported, schools are supposed to request a written statement from parents to be placed in the student’s file. Schools are also supposed to inform parents that their child’s test results will show a score of zero.
According to the Post, that zero counts against the school for its state accreditation rating; if enough parents refuse tests, a school accreditation could be downgraded. The zero also counts against the school for federal accountability.
According to the Post report, very few parents have chosen to refuse tests in Virginia in the past. The state administered more than 2.9 million tests in 2013-14 and reported only 681 parent refusals.
Brewster said everything about summer school and remediation are on the table now.
“We’ve talked about doing away with summer school and remediating during the school year. Some school systems aren’t doing summer school now primarily because they don’t have enough money. Our summer school now is only ten days due to finances,” he said.
Summer school in Pulaski County is funded by the State Department of Education and supplemented by local funds.
“Summer school is an issue we can handle on a case-by-case basis,” Brewster said. “We’ve never put in the letter that parents can opt out and here’s how. If the parent comes and says they really have to go out of town, there’s an alternative.
“To my knowledge we’ve never turned anyone down. It’s always been a fairly routine situation handled by the summer school principal. Rarely does it get to the central office,” Brewster added