Alternative (and questionable) test to be phased out

An alternative test once used by school districts to cheat their way around Virginia testing requirements – the state’s Standards of Learning Tests – will soon no longer be available, according to changes announced by the Virginia Department of Education.

An alternative test once used by school districts to cheat their way around Virginia testing requirements – the state’s Standards of Learning Tests – will soon no longer be available, according to changes announced by the Virginia Department of Education.

Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, Patricia I. Wright announced Thursday that the alternative tests, commonly called the VGLAs, which had been easy to abuse because they were graded and reported within the districts where the students took them, are being replaced by online tests. Those new tests will be administered by the state.

The first tests to be replaced will be the math tests, beginning in 2011, followed by the reading tests in 2012. The VGLA, or Virginia Grade-Level Alternative tests, were first implemented in 2005.

Issues with the VGLAs, which are administered to students with disabilities that prevent them from being assessed by Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, were first brought to light by a series of blog postings by a local state retiree, John Butcher, and a former Richmond Public Schools board member, Carol A.O. Wolf. Their findings were later, in part, reported by the Washington Post. The state’s changes were mandated after a bill patroned by State Del. John M. O’Bannon (R-Henrico) was passed by this year’s Virginia General Assembly.

“Today’s announcement 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,” Wright said in a statement released by the Virginia Department of Education on Thursday.

Even with the change, Butcher remains critical of the state, which he suggests ignored signs that the tests were being abused.

“In light of the information … one cannot but wonder why it takes a new law to excite the Superintendent’s ‘concerns’,” he wrote in an email and on his blog. “It seems to me that we need a Superintendent whose concerns center on Virginia’s students, not the administrators who have been abusing them via these alternative testing schemes.”

Wolf said she’s satisfied that some change is coming, but called for broader change — and an acknowledgment of the real human cost of the cheating that already has been allowed to go on: “Teachers have been fired, students kicked out of school and denied regular diplomas, parents treated as if they are non-entities with no rights — still, top-level administrators who knew of the cheating and chose to remain silent — continue to be paid high salaries.”

There was plenty of reason just in Richmond to suspect overuse when Wolf and Butcher began their investigation of the tests last year. According to a post on Butcher’s blog,, “Richmond has the second-highest rate of VGLA testing (substitute tests in grades 3-8 for kids with handicaps or disabilities) in the state” and “classifies an atypical number of black schoolchildren as ‘disabled,’ which contributes to Richmond’s high rate of VGLA testing.”

Though other VGLA tests will continue to be administered until they are eventually phased out, the state also indicated its desire to see greater accountability with those tests. According to the state’s release, “this spring, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) directed assessment, special education and other staff in divisions with VGLA participation rates of 25 percent or greater to undergo training on proper administration of the test.” The state average is 20 percent in both reading and mathematics.

The press release indicates that no time table has yet been established to phase out VGLA tests in writing, history, and science.

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Chris Dovi

13 comments on Alternative (and questionable) test to be phased out

  1. The salient fact here is that VDOE lobbied AGAINST the original O’Bannon bill that would have required VDOE to audit any system with >3% of its kids in VGLA. For the purpose of accuracy, the State should rename VDOE as Virginia Department of Educators.

  2. John T. Lloyd on said:

    Although the VGLA is going to be replaced beginning with the math section, I am certain that there will be efforts to circumvent the new testing tool. For that reason, I was hoping to see a bill with some consequences. Of course, this is a first step. In addition, it relieves teachers of the burdensome task of compiling these portfolios. Somewhere in all of this, I still believe students with disabilities and marginal students will be adversely impacted.

  3. Virginia on said:

    Let me get this straight — basically, the State Supt. of Education has admitted that she knew about this “abuse” (cheating) and did nothing until the General Assembly smacked VDOE’s hands. I bet no division Supt. has lost their job over this cheating.
    Thanks for posting that chart. That, at least, shows which division superintendents should lose their jobs. Disgusting.

    This is really a “Cheating Scandal” dressed up to look like something else.

  4. Elizabeth on said:

    You have a major incorrect item in this article. The VGLA is a portfolio assessment, NOT A TEST For example, if a 5th grade student reads on a 2nd grade level, he/she is given work with easier vocabulary, but the same concept, and it goes into the portfolio.

    The problem with VGLA (I did it as a special education teacher for 3 years) is that sometimes the student’s learning disability would not enable him/her to do the task, no matter how the vocabulary is simplified. That’s where some fraudulent practices came in, like giving the child the same task over and over until they get it right.

    I have spoken to a congressman (not from Virginia) on the Congressional Education Committee, who assures me that nation-wide changes are being looked at for special education students. They really are treated like pariahs because of this alternate assessment. It’s not fair to them. It’s also not fair to the teachers because they get blamed for not being able to achieve the impossible. I know. I’ve been there.

  5. Ralph on said:

    And, in Virginia, the State Supt. knows about cheating but doesn’t do anything about it until people like Butcher and Wolf badger them with facts, facts and facts ….. Obviously, VDOE “liked” the special education students and their “portfolio assessments” because it helped them jack up the pass rates. It wore out the teachers who had to collect reams of information and who were pressured to classify kids as disabled who really weren’t. Again, thanks for that chart. IT IS AMAZING! Richmond should be ashamed.

  6. Virginia on said:

    Ralph, You’re, right! OMG!

    2008-2009 VGLA Participation by Subject Area
    Reading Math Science History Writing
    RICHMOND CITY 43.4% 38.7% 30.1% 32.8% 40.4%

    CHESTERFIELD 7.7% 7.4% 0.3% 1.8% 0.0%

    HENRICO COUNTY 24.0% 21.4% 5.4% 8.7% 3.6%

    HANOVER COUNTY 16.0% 18.6% 2.2% 4.0% 0.0%

  7. John Lloyd has it right.

    The incentives for the school systems and their unions are to maximize cash inflow and dues paying members.

    Because these incentives exists, one certainty is that human beings will respond to them. The existence of this article and the tactics described are proof of that.

  8. informed citizen on said:

    Hello, Virginia is NOT a state that permits teacher unions…where have you been the last 30 years or so?

  9. Virginia on said:

    The other certainty is that when faced with these facts, Richmond’s Supt. Yvonne Brandon and Board Chair Kim Bridges will find a way to blame this all on the parents or teachers of RPS. The administration and school board have an annoying habit of blaming others for their own failures of leadership.

    Will they accept responsibility for this gross cheating and disgusting “abuse” of children with disabilities?

  10. Concerned on said:

    My questions are:

    Has Secretary of Education Arne Duncan approved Virginia’s additional dumbed down test called VMAST? As I recall, Ms. Spellings would not approve Virginia’s request in the past for a modified test, and as far as I know NCLB has not been reauthorized to allow states to modify standards for more than the existing 1% who take the VAAP alternate.

    What is the maximum percentage of students who will be allowed to take this modified standards test?

    What do the modified standards look like? Can parents see a sample test before agreeing to have their child be on the VMAST? For instance, for 3rd grade students who take the VMAST, will the standards be at 1st grade or below? If so, I am not impressed.

    How many other states are being allowed to give modified standards test?

    I fear the VMAST is just (1) another open door for more cheating and (2) another way to dumb down curriculum for students with disabilities and (3) another way for schools to avoid accountability.

    The answer is to start teaching students with disabilities to read, write, and do math – and stop the babysitting and creaming out. Even if students do not pass the test, at least get them close to passing, please! And try harder the next year.

    I would be more sympathetic to the plight of schools if I were not made aware of the labeling and subsequent dumbing down of curriculum for even average, “normal” students.

  11. Carol A.O. Wolf on said:

    I would like to see those who know our children with disabilities best — their parents, teachers and physicians — have the opportunity to give public comment on what testing instrument would be best able to determine the disAbilities of our children. Unfortunately, that did not happen when the VGLA was embraced by VDOE and I see no indication the Supt. Wright has any intention of seeking input from us this time around.

    I would also like to see some division Superintendents held accountable for using this the VGLA portfolios as a means to cheat and inflate scores. I have no doubt that if a Supt. were to be ensnared in a cheating scandal involving “regular ed” SOL testing, that there would be consequences. It troubles me that there is absolutely no indication that VDOE intends to hold any Supt. accountable for cheating with the VGLA portfolio assessments.

  12. Former ESL Teacher on said:

    Thank you Chris for finally printing this. As you may recall I spoke to you some time ago in reference to this regarding ESL students.They,too,have been forced to take a test “proving” they are on a grade level that they are not on. So a middle school student illiterate in his/her native, home, language must show that they are on a middle school Reading level and know the difference between metaphors, similes and hyperboles when in reality they are not able to independently read a first or second grade book.
    Who is advocating for them? I have hoped for several years that the Hispanic community would step up to the plate and complain. Unfortunately, no one has wanted to rock the boat.Perhaps they will now.

  13. Carol A.O. Wolf on said:

    I posted a note on the Washington Post site of this story asking for parents and teachers who have received pressure to have their child use the VGLA portfolio assessment instead of the SOLs and have received a tremendous response.

    I ask also that parents and teachers in the Richmond area contact me as well. I promise to keep your identities condidential, but would appreciate hearing from you at

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