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VDOE: Waive Spring Student Assessments Due to COVID-19

The front entrance of Pleasants Lane Elementary School.
It's uncertain whether Virginia schools will reopen in time for spring SOL tests. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As schools remain closed across Virginia due to coronavirus concerns, officials are trying to mitigate the impact on students and districts.

The closures, ordered last week by Gov. Ralph Northam, came in the middle of state Standards of Learning assessments for writing, more commonly called SOL tests. The Virginia Department of Education has extended the windows for that testing to be completed. However, it’s unclear whether Virginia schools will reopen in time for the bulk of scheduled, spring SOL testing. The statewide window for all other SOL tests grades 3-8 is between April 13 and June 26. 

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane recently announced that the state education department is asking the U.S. Department of Education for “maximum flexibility” during the rest of the school year.

“We understand that this is an unsettling time for families and we’re certainly entering unprecedented areas of flexibility we’re going to have to work out,” Lane said in an interview with VPM.

As of Wednesday morning, Northam hadn’t extended school closures beyond the initial two-week period announced last week.

“This is such a fluid situation,” Northam said during a press conference Wednesday. “I’m assessing that on a day-to-day basis but I haven’t made any changes in our initial policy.”

Federal law, through the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. The federal law also requires states to administer science tests at least once during elementary, middle and high school.

Right now, the federal government only allows states to apply for testing waivers for individual districts. Lane says it’s time to start thinking about a statewide solution, and hopes to hear from the U.S. Department of Education this week about whether or not statewide waivers are on the table.

“I think we all know that this situation could occur longer into the future, and we could even be in a situation where schools are closed almost the remainder of the school year,” Lane said. “We don’t know yet.”

A spokesperson for VDOE said they’re expecting guidance any day now about the criteria and process to submit a statewide testing waiver.

If the annual testing requirement is waived by the federal government, there would essentially be a gap in student assessment data for the current school year. Without that data, the state couldn’t measure student growth. That could impact how schools are accredited.

The state Board of Education will be holding a public conference call Friday at 1 p.m. to discuss how to address the accreditation issue to ensure schools aren’t penalized for a situation beyond their control.

“These are extraordinary times and it would not be fair to our students, teachers, principals and other educators to have the accreditation ratings of their schools suffer next year because of the coronavirus pandemic,” Dan Gecker, president of the state board of education, said in a VDOE press release. 

VDOE staff has also been directed by Lane to review state laws and regulations related to state graduation requirements to make sure seniors who would otherwise graduate this spring are not denied diplomas.

“We know that especially 12th grade students are worried about graduation, and we’re going to continue to look at waivers there as well, so we can ensure that students who’ve worked hard for four years are able to finish their school year strongly and reach that stage we always hope for, even if it’s a virtual stage this year,” Lane told VPM.