English SOL structure changes

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Junior Jordan Fox is one of the many students nervous about the change to the English SOLs this year.

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Students will be subjected to several changes to the English reading and writing SOL come May. The state is trying to increase the rigor of the test, adding technology based questions with extended passages to an already lengthy test. These technology enhanced items will make both tests look like what a math and history SOL have looked like for the last two years.

“I can definitely see the changes [to the SOL] affecting the student body as a whole,” sophomore Deanna Gowland said. “Having to spend a year in a regular English class after taking an honors English class last year, the kids I have had to spend a year with this year definitely seem like they might be affected by the changes compared to how the honors kids might be able to handle them.”

Last year, changes to the math SOL caused a significant drop in passing rates and with the changes to this year’s English SOL, teachers, administration, and students are fearing that this drop will occur once again in another subject.

“The state is consistently evaluating where our students are and pushing for higher expectations,” English teacher Lynn Beal said. “I think it’s always important to evaluate where students should be and make adjustments to improve our society.”

Students will also have to identify words using prefixes and roots on the reading SOL, as well as word history. There will also be questions that are based on two texts with extended passages rather than one. This means that students will have to pair together an essay and a poem and find similarities and differences between the two on a single question.

“The essay that students will write for the writing SOL will definitely be a persuasive prompt,” English teacher Amy Graham said. “In terms of the reading SOL, there’s going to be a greater emphasis on abstractions. So rather than identifying a literary term, you’re going to have to already know the literary term and correctly identify how it impacts the text.”

“If we look at the pass rate of all the other core curriculums, it dropped to some extent [with the changes to the SOL],” Beal said. “However, the English team is being very proactive at identifying the new standards and are teaching accordingly.”

Like Beal, many teachers are having to make changes to their class curriculum to teach to what the new SOL requires, especially for those teachers teaching English 11 classes.

“I’m trying to use more paired texts. I’m trying to get students to understand word roots, to think about words not just as a word and a definition, but a word that developed over the last thousand years, that has a root and also maybe prefixes and suffixes so we’re taking words apart and looking at them in ways more than just what do they mean,” Graham said. “I think in general, I’m trying to push students into analysis rather than just plot summary, and that’s something that we’ve already done, but this year we’re just doing it more deliberately. There’s been a lot of emphasis on how to persuasively write this year. We’ve taught that pretty directly to prepare students for the essay that they’ll get on their writing SOL.”

Graham would also go on to explain that there will be an English writing SOL in March for most students where they take a 50 question multiple choice test and write an essay. There will also be a reading test in mid-May that is 55 questions and is expected to be similar to the verbal section of the SAT.

“I think anytime a state increases rigor and introduces a brand new test, there’s a degree of unpredictability and even the state doesn’t have students performance history to rely on as they predict how difficult questions will be for students,” Graham said. “So I’m not sure [how this will affect students’ passing rates], but I think we have done everything in our power to prepare students this year for what we think is coming. It will be interesting to see if the guidelines that the state has given us match up with what they introduce in March, then in May.”

Teachers feel strongly that students enrolled in the ESOL department will also perform well on this year’s SOL. The ESOL department prepares their students strongly for the test every year and ESOL students have performed just as well as the general population in the last couple years.

“All English teachers are doing a great job adjusting their curriculums to fit the needs of their students and to make sure everyone passes in May,” English department chair Alan Weintraut said.

“A lot of professionals have to take tests to get re-licensed so I think that there’s a ‘real life’ element to high-stakes tests that’s like, ‘this is something that we live with in the age that we live in,’” Graham said. “I do think that for high schoolers, it can be a lot of pressure and for teachers it can be a lot of pressure. And for students that have test anxiety, it’s sometimes maybe an inaccurate depiction of how they actually read and write.”