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Virginia schools will have some flexibility in administering Standards of Learning tests to elementary and middle school students this spring, according to a Thursday news release from the state Department of Education.

Instead of being required to take the full slate of normally state-mandated tests — designed to set minimum expectations for what students should know at the end of every school year — younger students will have the option of taking local assessments in history, social science and English under waivers and emergency guidance issued by state Superintendent James Lane, the Virginia Board of Education, and Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

“These waivers provide relief and agility to students and educators who are managing a lot of personal and professional pressure during this tumultuous time,” Qarni said in a statement. 

Divisions will be able to request a waiver to replace the Virginia Studies, Civics and Economics, and Grade-8 Writing SOL tests with local assessments, as long as they follow emergency guidance from the Board of Education and provide student performance data to the state.

VDOE also announced that school divisions will have greater flexibility in awarding credits toward graduation, allowing them to grant students credits as long as they score at least 350 on the local assessment and meet the school system’s criteria for course achievement.

SOLs have been a concern for educators since the beginning of the pandemic in March, when Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a statewide closure of school buildings. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that state education administrators asked U.S. Department of Education officials to waive federal requirements for testing.

While Virginia can choose whether it administers statewide tests in certain subjects, federal education laws mandate testing in reading and mathematics for third through eighth graders, according to the release. The rules also require reading and math tests in high school and science testing at least once in elementary, middle and high school. 

In a Thursday Board of Education meeting, Lane said it’s unlikely the federal government will loosen those restrictions.

“The waivers and emergency guidance will simplify the logistics of SOL testing this year and ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not unduly prevent any student from earning a diploma,” he added in a statement. 

The relaxed requirements will likely come as a relief to educators and students as many continue with all-virtual schooling during a now eight-month-long pandemic. SOLs were canceled in the spring of 2020 after Virginia was granted a federal waiver for the tests, so it’s still unclear whether the lack of face-to-face instruction will affect student performance.

The tests don’t affect school funding, but are tied to teacher performance evaluations and whether schools are accredited by the federal and state education departments.

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