SOLs reduce total learning

Published 8:50 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2014

By Clay Scott

The Virginia Standards of Learning are nearly 20 years old now, which means a number of graduating classes have gone from kindergarten through 12th grade using a uniform statewide curriculum.

This experiment with accountability has added positions to the already cluttered bureaucracy and added countless hours of additional work to administrators’ duties. Unfortunately, these only represent the beginning of the cost of standardization in education.

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Standardization is the enemy to liberty in education. Standardization restricts the ability of individual administrators, teachers and parents to make key decisions regarding an individual’s education. But even if freedom is not valued, standardization is still the enemy to learning.

Curriculum is the foundation of everything else that happens in a school. With the adoption of the standards of learning, curriculum choices were largely removed from the school and district levels. The state dictates what must be taught and then judges the quality of the schools based on students’ performance on tests covering that material. The tests give the regulations teeth.

So, the state-mandated curriculum is the base of the curriculum. If there is space, school or district personnel may choose to fill it in with some other material. This represents the school’s official curriculum.

What we’ve learned from the age of accountability is that tested material gets covered in depth. Other material is often relegated to the sidelines. It is not unusual for the weeks leading up to testing dates to be filled exclusively with test preparation.

Subjects not tested simply are not taught during that time period. It has become a common and accepted practice to simply not have science class, for example, for an entire month, because science is not tested in that grade.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from middle school teachers about students’ poor understanding of grammar. Grammar is in the curriculum, but the kids don’t know it, because it isn’t tested until middle school.

This over-emphasis on tested material to the exclusion of other, often more valuable, content represents the “hidden curriculum.” Also included in the hidden curriculum are the values, behaviors, language and other material modeled and taught though the culture of the school.

The final type of curriculum is where standardization can do the greatest damage. It is known as the null curriculum. When you decide to include something in the curriculum, you are excluding something else. Think of it as the opportunity cost of including a particular point of content.

The null curriculum comprises everything not included in the curriculum or the hidden curriculum. Every book not read, every equation not calculated, every bird not classified, every historical figure not discussed — these are the null curriculum. Standardization means that not only is the curriculum the same for all students, the null curriculum is also the same.

Looking at learning from a statewide perspective, the base plus all differences could represent all the learning that took place in that year. If we want the broadest base of knowledge for Virginia’s students, the key is in minimizing the null curriculum, the exact opposite of what standardization dictates.

This cost is seldom discussed and can never be quantified. Virginia’s students learn less today, because nearly two decades ago we enacted policies to maximize the null curriculum. How much knowledge has been lost? We’ll never know.

What is certain is that the Virginia Department of Education should be encouraging knowledge within our society, not depressing it. But should we expect any less from a central authority?

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at