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Test scores are not the whole story

There are places in the world — even in the First World — where testing is not the primary means of measuring educational achievement. You’ve likely seen examples on your social media feed of youngsters in Scandinavian countries whose school days are filled with playtime and hands-on activities, rather than rote memorization. There are even many private schools in America that value experiential learning over lectures and the like.

Whether one style of teaching is superior to the other, public schools in Virginia, like the rest of the nation, operate under a system of extensive testing designed to measure whether students have learned the things educators have deemed important for their future success — whether in the next grade level or in the world after graduation.

The trick for teachers working under that system is to do their best to impart the knowledge necessary to pass those tests, encourage their charges to improve their critical thinking skills and teach them that, in the end, the tests only measure what the tests are designed to measure.

Most teachers in the Suffolk Public Schools system take all three of those duties very seriously, and a group of educators at Pioneer Elementary set a great example of how to accomplish that last goal during the school’s recent Standards of Learning Tests.

Students arriving at the school before their tests recently were treated like rock stars. The third-grade teachers set up a red carpet and banners for their youngsters, giving them a microphone to speak into and tons of encouragement before they embarked on their first standardized tests.

Fifth-grade teacher Katelyn Leitner took the confidence-boosting to another level. She gave each student in her class a copy of a letter that reminded the kids that each of them is important and special in ways that no standardized test can measure.

“The SOL test does not test all of what makes each of you special,” the letter stated. “The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way I do. … They have not seen your talents that I have. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten someone’s day.”

Standardized testing is surely an important way to determine whether students have grasped the concepts that are important for students to learn, and it would be hard to eliminate the tests from a curriculum that encompasses students of all backgrounds and abilities. Creating an educational system that caters to and succeeds for such a broad range of young people is a challenge unique to the public school system.

But it’s just as important for educators to help students understand that their value can’t be calculated simply as a function of their test scores. Kudos to the folks at Pioneer — and to other teachers and administrators throughout the Suffolk school system — who recognize that fact and have taken steps to make sure their students understand it, as well.