Orange County High School

Orange County High School students excelled on the math SOL exams in 2018-19, but the percentage passing the 11th-grade writing exam was 10 points below the state average. 

Orange County High School students are soaring in math and chemistry and comfortably above the state average in earth science and biology. That’s some of the good news coming out of the Standards of Learning (SOL) test results for 2018-19.

Based on preliminary data, all the schools across the division will remain accredited, according to Jim Yurasits, director of testing, data, and school improvement for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS)—that’s more good news.

On the other side of the ledger, only 71% of the 11th-graders at Orange County High School passed the SOL writing exam, down 12 percentage points from the previous year and 10 points below the current state average. In both 2016-17 and 2017-18, the local SOL pass rate in 11th-grade writing was 83%, very close to the state average of 84%.

In his presentation on SOL results during a recent school board meeting, Yurasits was especially enthusiastic about the math and science scores at the high school and more measured in his comments about the writing scores. He said more emphasis may have been placed on bringing up math scores, possibly to the detriment of writing.

Before summing up the results in high school math, he said, “Wow, this is remarkable!”

In Algebra I, the pass rate of 94% was 12 percentage points higher than the previous year and eight points above the current state pass rate.

“I’m not sure what was going on,” Yurasits said, “but something really clicked, to improve that much.”

In Algebra II, the pass rate was 95%, an impressive 21-point improvement over 2017-18, and four points above the state average.

Although Yurasits said the relatively low Algebra II pass rate in 2017-18 was “a bit of an anomaly,” he still commended last year’s students and teachers for their achievement.

Of the students taking the SOL in geometry last year, 93% passed, 9% more than the previous year and 10 points higher than the state average.

Overall, he said the end-of-course high school math scores were “definitely something to be proud of.”

SOL scores in chemistry have been high for the past three years. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, the local pass rate held steady at 91%, two points above the state average of 89%. Last year, OCHS chemistry students zoomed to a 97% pass rate, nine points above the state average of 88%.

Fourth-grade students did better, by six percentage points, than their predecessors taking the math exam in 2017-18. What was also striking, Yurasits said, was their improvement as a cohort from the previous year.

He noted that with some students moving in and out of the area, a cohort is about 90% the same from one year to the next. With that caveat in mind, he drew the attention of board members to the 22-point leap that the group made from a 67% pass rate on the third-grade SOL to their 89% pass rate as fourth-graders.

“That’s a huge increase,” he said. “I can’t begin to explain that. It could be instruction; it could be different material. But in whatever case, that’s a large increase right there.”

He added that third grade is the first year students are required to take SOL exams: “They haven’t actually sat through that kind of test yet, and for a lot of them, that’s disconcerting. So there’s going to be some improvement as they get used to that kind of standardized testing.”

In some dispiriting news, sixth grade math scores have tumbled since 2016-17, and the most recent seventh grade math scores are nine points below the state average.

In 2016-17, the sixth-grade division pass rate in math was 80%, just two points below the state average. The next year, it plummeted to 62%, well below the state average of 79%. For 2018-19, it crept up a point to 63%, again far below the state pass rate of 78%.

The downward trend in math also is evident when looking at the cohort of students moving from fourth to fifth to sixth grade. Yurasits pointed out that last year’s cohort of sixth-graders did slightly better than the state average in math when they were in fourth grade and were even with the state when they were in fifth grade. But as a group they did much worse in 2018-19 than they had the year before.

News in seventh-grade math was mixed. The local pass rate was 69%, a seven-point improvement over the previous year but nine points below the state average.

Scores in other areas mostly were flat, with a few ticks upward or downward. In eighth-grade writing, the pass rate was 69%, four points higher than the previous year and one point shy of the state average.

In the SOL exam on Virginia studies, the local pass rate was 86%, three points lower than the previous year but five points above the state average. Likewise, in civics, the latest local pass rate is 85%, five points below 2017-18 but three points above the state level.

In the SOL exam on Virginia and U.S. history, local high school students didn’t fare as well in 2018-19 as their predecessors did in 2017-18 (a drop from 91% to 82%), but their pass rate was considerably higher than the state average of 68%.

In reading, there has been a slight downward trend in third- and fourth-grade SOL scores over the past three years, but Yurasits pointed out that fourth-graders as a cohort did better than they had when they were in third grade. Their pass rate jumped from 69% in third grade to 77% in fourth, which puts them two points higher than the current state average.

Yurasits stressed, as he does every year, that the SOL results are provisional until the state declares them final. However, the differences between the sets of scores typically are very slight.

Following Yurasits’ presentation to the school board, Renee Honaker, OCPS director of secondary education, and Judy Anderson, OCPS director of elementary education, offered their assessments of the data.

“We were all very disappointed to see that end-of-course writing drop,” Honaker said. “We’ve looked into some reasons. We don’t have great answers, but we do have some plans to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Those plans include providing more assistance to students who struggle with writing. Specialists in writing and reading, as well as a special education teacher, will work closely with those students.

Honaker said teachers will provide their students with writing rubrics—detailed descriptions of what good writing entails—rather than simple checklists to consult as they write their essays.

“We’ve also looked at the amount of writing we’re doing,” she said, while making sure students get constructive criticism on all the essays they write for class.

In a related development, Honaker said that in response to a request from students, plans are underway to make the high school literature curriculum more culturally diverse. She said a group of students had said “they weren’t seeing themselves” in assigned readings.

Anderson told the board that teachers at the elementary level will receive further guidance in the teaching of reading, and math teachers will be working on plans for a math workshop. In a workshop setting, students will collaborate while solving math problems. Anderson said this model works nicely with the state’s requirement that teachers at all levels include the “Five C’s” in the curriculum—critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and citizenship.

She noted that administrators at each school will work with the central office to devise a specific plan aimed at improving instruction and raising SOL scores.

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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