The Standards of Learning tests are administered by the Virginia Department of Education, and their purpose to test what K-12 students have learned at the end of their coursework. The SOLs are considered minimum level standards, and Virginia teachers are encouraged to teach more content than is tested on the exams. There are released items for all tests, including the Biology SOL, on the VDOE website. During 2012-2013, VDOE increased the rigor of the science-based tests to address college and career readiness by fully implementing updated standards written in 2010.
There are 60 items on the Biology SOL, including 50 questions that count toward a student's score and 10 that are field tested for later testing. The Biology SOL includes four reporting categories: scientific investigation, life at the molecular and cellular level, life at the systems and organisms level and interaction of life forms. There are 16 questions for the life at the molecular and cellular level category, but only 11 or 12 questions each for the three other categories. Students receive an individual score for each reporting category as well as an overall score. Tests are administered on a computer via Virginia's SOL technology initiative.
VDOE has posted a complete curriculum framework and list of standards for the Biology SOL on its website, but not every standard is tested. Omitted standards include BIO.4d, which concerns human health issues, anatomy and body systems as they relate to the life functions of archaea, bacteria and eukarya, as well as BIO.5i, which concerns the use, misuse and limitations of genetic information such as DNA. All other standards from the curriculum framework are testing possibilities, such as scientific reasoning, cell structure and function, how viruses compete with organisms, fossils and ecosystems.
Going over released test items can help students prepare for the types of questions they will see. Some released items can be found on Virginia's ePAT system, which stands for Practice Assessment Tools and gives students a preview of the online testing system. There are also Printable released tests from 2001 to 2006 and online tests from 2002 to 2005 are available online and may be accessed through SOL Pass. However, as of fall 2013, no items based on the 2010 standards have been released from the first round of testing, which occurred in the spring of 2013.
Since nearly every standard may be tested on the exam, all standards should be covered as a part of the class preparation. The SOL Pass website includes practice quizzes and study packets in addition to hosting the released tests. Some Virginia school districts, such as Rockingham County, also provide websites with preparatory materials and links to other sites to help students practice and build skills. Though it can be tempting to simply teach to the standards, VDOE states that the new items include more critical thinking and technology-enhanced items, which require students to know more than just the information.
Anna Tower has a B.A. in history and journalism from Washington & Lee University and a M.A.Ed. from the College of William and Mary. She has been writing since 2003 at various publications, including the "Rockbridge Report," the "Fairfax County Times" and "USA Today." Tower is certified to teach social studies, English and journalism in grades 6-12.