Terry McAuliffe promised on the campaign trail to reform the state's student testing system, which he criticized as focused more on memorization than grasp.
His 2013 campaign platform said, "We must have a strong system of student achievement and teacher evaluation. Unfortunately our current system isn't working for parents, students, or teachers. The current Standards of Learning tests have created an environment with an over-emphasis on drilling students to take one-time, multiple-choice tests."
We first looked at this campaign plank back in 2014, when the governor was half-way into his first year in office. That year, McAuliffe signed bill that reduced the total number of SOL tests students take from third grade eighth from 22 to 17.
The bill also created an SOL Innovation Committee that was to make recommendations on how to improve the tests. McAuliffe appointed 34 people - mostly educators - to the panel.
Some additional reforms steps have been taken since then.
McAuliffe signed a bill earlier this year that directs the Board of Education to ease SOL test requirements needed for high school graduation. Next month, that board is slated to consider a proposal that would reduce the number of SOLs that must be passed in high school for an advanced diploma from nine tests to four; it would lower the SOL credits needed for a standard diploma from six tests to four.
Brian Coy, McAuliffe's director of communications, told us that under McAuliffe, the state also has implemented "computer adaptive tests." These are online SOL exams that are geared to an individual student's ability. Instead of a traditional test with one set of questions for every student, the online adaptive exams ask pupils a varying set of questions that become more challenging if they answer correctly.
The Department of Education announced in April of this year that it was expanding use of computer adaptive testing for elementary and middle school students. This occurred after the General Assembly agreed to McAuliffe's request for $7.2 million to convert all SOL tests for math and reading in the third through eighth grade to the adaptive format by the fall of 2017.
McAuliffe, in a news release, said the shift will reduce test-taking time and student stress.
There are no plans yet to expand the computer adaptive testing to the high school level, according to Charles Pyle, communications director for the Department of Education.
Pyle told us that the volume of multiple choice questions on SOL exams has decreased during McAuliffe's term and that they now account for about 85 percent of the tests. We should note, however, that much of the drop came from efforts begun during the term of McAuliffe's predecessor - Republican Bob McDonnell.
We also contacted Jim Livingston, chairman of the Virginia Education Association and a member of the SOL Innovation Commission. He told us in an email that the commission is still working on ways to lessen reliance on multiple-choice questions.
Many educators have long complained that the state puts too much emphasis on SOL test scores in rating the performances of schools and teachers. Coy said the Department of Education is trying to create a new school accreditation system that would place less weight on a school's average SOL scores and consider other factors such as student growth and absenteeism.
The bottom line is that McAuliffe is taking steady strides on his pledge to reform SOLs, but some of the key pieces of his program remain pending. We'll take another look at the progress next year. For now, we'll continue to rate this "In the Works."
Terry McAuliffe campaign platform May 6, 2013.
PolitiFact Virginia, "Work is underway," July 3, 2014.
Email from Brian Coy, spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Dec. 21, 2016.
Emails from Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, Dec. 21-22, 2016.
Interview with Charles Pyle, Dec. 22, 2016.
Email from John O'Neil, spokesman for the Virginia Education Association, Dec. 22, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Standards of Learning (SOL) & Testing," accessed Dec. 21, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Computer assisted testing means shorter math tests for students," April 27, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Frequently asked questions about SOL testing," October 2015.
Virginia Department of Education, "2014-2015 Virginia assessment program changes," Aug. 22, 2016.
Terry McAuliffe's Common Good PAC website, accessed Dec. 21, 2016.
Legislative Information System, SB 336, April 6, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Frequently asked questions on local alternative assessments," accessed Dec. 22, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Computer Adaptive Testing: Frequently asked questions," Aug. 22, 2014.
The Washington Post, "What are authentic assessments?" April 5, 2016.
Education Week, "ESSA and performance tests, where states go from here," Oct. 11, 2016.
Department of Education, "Board of Education approves local test guidelines," Sept. 18, 2014.
Legislative Information System, SB 306 from the 2014 General Assembly session, April 4, 2016.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe's State of the Commonwealth speech, Jan. 13, 2016.
Virginia Department of Education, "Computer Adaptive Testing," accessed Dec. 22, 2016.
Virginia Board of Education, "Board of Education annual report," Jan. 20, 2014.
Virginia Board of Education agenda item, Nov. 17, 2016.
Work is underway
During his campaign last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised to seek major reforms in Standards of Learning tests given in public schools.
His platform said, "We must have a strong system of student achievement and teacher evaluation. Unfortunately our current system isn't working for parents, students, or teachers. The current Standards of Learning tests have created an environment with an over-emphasis on drilling students to take one-time, multiple-choice tests."
McAuliffe said the multiple-choice exams lean too much on rote learning and should use essay questions as well to assess students' comprehension. Teachers, he said, should be evaluated on their students' improvement in scores -- not how they stack up against state averages. McAuliffe pledged to appoint a commission to study the tests and recommend changes.
This issue gained bipartisan support in the General Assembly earlier this year. It passed a bill that reduced the total number of SOL tests students take from third through eighth grade from 22 to 17. The legislation also created an SOL Innovation Committee that, over the next two years, will recommend improvements to the tests.
On June 30, McAuliffe appointed 34 people -- mostly educators from across the state -- to the committee. The panel's first meeting is slated for July 15.
McAuliffe is clearly making progress on his pledge to reform the SOLs. We rate his promise "In the Works."
McAuliffe, campaign platform, May 6, 2013.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "House advances bills on school openings, SOLs, school ratings," Feb. 11, 2014.
Legislative Information System, 2014 HB 930, accessed April 29, 2014.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "McAuliffe vetoes school prayer bill, signs SOL reform," April 4, 2014.
McAuliffe, "Governor McAuliffe Applauds House Passage of SOL Reform Legislation," Feb. 11, 2014.
NBC29.com, "Gov. McAuliffe Announces Next Steps in SOL Reform Process," May 5, 2014.
Office of the Governor, "McAuliffe Administration Announces SOL Innovation Committee Members," June 30, 2014.