Virginia education leaders moved this week to introduce a standardized test for students with disabilities and phase out a widely used alternative that many officials say is undermining the state's accountability system.
The modified multiple-choice test is expected to be more objective than the flexible, portfolio-style exam that thousands of students in Northern Virginia are assessed with now. The online test will be implemented statewide in the 2011-12 school year in math and the following year in reading. A small sample of schools will try it this spring.
Critics have charged that the portfolio test inflates passing rates and obscures data the public relies on to understand gaps in student achievement. This winter the Virginia General Assembly approved a law to phase out the portfolio "as soon as is feasible."
This "is the first step in carrying out the will of the General Assembly and addressing my own concerns about overuse and misuse of the VGLA," Virginia's superintendent for public instruction, Patricia I. Wright, said in a statement, referring to the Virginia Grade Level Alternative, or portfolio test.
The number of portfolios given in Virginia more than doubled, to 47,000, in the past three years. One in five students with disabilities in grades three to eight was assessed with a portfolio in reading and math in the 2008-09 school year.
The test was originally meant for a small number of special-education students who learn grade-level material but cannot show what they know on a multiple-choice test. Many parents and analysts say that unclear criteria helped the numbers grow, as did the federal government's approval of the reading test in 2007 for use by non-native English speakers just beginning to learn the language.
Portfolios are essentially binders of student work, including quizzes, worksheets and other activities that demonstrate comprehension of each part of the required curriculum. Teachers spend hours compiling them each year.
Some educators say the individualized tests strengthen instruction for students with disabilities because they hold teachers accountable for showing that the youngsters understand a whole year's material.
But average passing rates for portfolios have exceeded those for multiple-choice tests in recent years, causing confusion and concern over why students with the greatest learning challenges were performing the best.. . .