A new web site will allow children from military families to compare states’ academic standards and take a free online test to identify the gaps in their understanding as they move to a new state with different testing and curriculum.

Moving from one school district to another in the same state can make it hard enough to gauge a student’s academics—and moving to a new state altogether introduces even more questions. Has the student met required benchmarks? How does testing compare to the student’s former state? What will the student have to do to complete high school graduation requirements? Because the 500,000 children from military families move at three times the rate of their classmates, those questions can be ever-present from kindergarten through high school.

Children from military families "face a whole different set of standards and challenges than non-military students," said Nicole Rowe, vice president of The Princeton Review, one of the country’s premiere providers of test-preparation services. The company, along with the Department of Defense Education Activity, launched Student Online Achievement Resources (SOAR) in April.

Students in grades 3-12 and their parents can visit www.soarathome.org and review the standards of the state or school district they are moving to. Students also can take an online assessment to see how they measure up to their new district’s math and language-arts requirements. In addition, the SOAR web site provides a host of tutorials that will help students reinforce their skills or improve in subjects they struggle with.

"Our goal is to give them something that will ease that transition, something that will help to demystify the standards in the new state," Rowe said.

The online assessment tools have been used in school districts across the country in recent years to help parents understand where their child lies on the academic spectrum. Michael Perik, president and CEO of The Princeton Review, said those proven methods would be valuable to military families as they move from base to base, ensuring their children’s grades don’t suffer along the way.

"These tools have been used by some of our nation’s largest and best school districts," Perik said in a statement. "They help students improve their skills and feel more confident about their classroom and test performance, while at the same time helping parents as they assist their children with specific skills."

The SOAR web site has come online during an ongoing debate about the drawbacks of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Critics charge the 2002 law has resulted in states adopting drastically different standards as school boards and superintendents strive to meet NCLB’s demanding mandates, including one that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

A report released last summer by the U.S. Department of Education measured state tests with a national assessment that compared state expectations side by side for the first time.

A fourth-grader in Mississippi is considered reading proficient with a state score that equals 161 on the national test, while a Massachusetts fourth-grader would need to score 234 to be rated as proficient. Some scoring differences cited in the federal study constituted a difference of several grade levels, making it difficult for military families to anticipate standards as they relocate around the country.

Rowe said a few thousand military families have signed up as members on the SOAR web site, but she expects that number to jump once the program exits its pilot phase this fall.

School administrators say students from other states or school systems usually take weeks—sometimes months—to adjust to their new surroundings and the curriculum. Switching to a new school district in the middle of a semester can be especially difficult for students, they say.

"As students move into our district with experiences from other school districts, there is some adjustment period needed based on courses that have been taken previously as well as content taught within grade levels and courses," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. "Our staff is generally well-prepared to help these students and their parents with the transition, but any service that can also assist families during a move in terms of education would be a welcome addition to the support structure."

Even some districts within the same state have standards that vary widely, Hirsch said. This can pose a challenge to the millions of non-military families who move within the same state and place their child in a district with entirely new academic expectations.

While there clearly is a need for tools such as SOAR for non-military families as well, only children of active-duty personnel can access the web site’s services at this time.

Rowe said the SOAR program is in its third year of federal funding and will receive $5 million this year. Expansion of the web site to non-military families would largely depend on continued federal dollars, she said.

Links:

Student Online Achievement Resources

The Princeton Review

Federal study: "Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales"