A small break from the SOL microscope

Published 9:46 pm Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Do standardized tests carry too much weight in public education?

It’s a vexing question for those of us who are interested in better long-range outcomes (a better-prepared workforce) but still believe in short-term accountability for schools.

Rote memorization — a natural byproduct of a system that judges teachers and administrators almost entirely on how their students perform on a one-time test — is a poor method of learning. Yet, most agree that schools’ effectiveness must somehow be measured in the short term.


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How can we free professional educators to teach creatively and effectively but still have confidence that students are mastering the basic skills needed to be productive in an increasingly complicated economy?

Give the Virginia General Assembly credit for trying to strike a balance between two noble objectives.

Legislation approved by lawmakers during the 2014 regular session eliminated five Standards of Learning tests in early grades and gives local school divisions — and, by extension, teachers — flexibility to use their own instructional methods and measure their own results.

SOL tests that were scrapped effective with the current school year are Grade-3 History/Social Science, Grade-3 Science, Grade-5 Writing, U.S. History I (formerly administered in grade 5 or grade 6) and U.S. History II (formerly administered in grade 6 or grade 7).

According to the state Board of Education, the legislation requires school divisions to “certify annually that they have provided instruction and administered an alternative assessment, consistent with Board of Education guidelines, to students in grades and subject areas that no longer have a corresponding SOL test. The board’s guidelines leave the type of assessments developed or selected to local school boards. The possibilities include traditional tests, performance- and project-based assessments, formative or summative assessments, and integrated tests that cover content from more than one subject area.”

“The state board is saying to teachers, ‘Be creative this year. Collaborate and take advantage of this opportunity to design assessments that support instruction and assess 21st-century skills as well as SOL content,’” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said.

In other words, use your professional judgment to teach kids what they need to be successful, rather than “teaching to the test,” which is inevitable when SOLs are the end all and be all of determining whether a teacher has done his or her job properly.

The downside for those of us who want to know how our schools are doing is that scores from local assessments will not be reported to the state or, presumably, to the taxpaying public.

On balance, it’s a good experiment. Any systemic failures in early grades will likely become obvious as kids are tested in later grades. The General Assembly could quickly reverse course. On the other hand, if students prosper under the new system, it could lead to a wider dismantling of the SOL bureaucracy. That’s a good long-term goal for a society whose interest should be in a well-educated workforce, rather than micromanagement of the methods used to achieve it.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.