What should we expect from our schools? Certainly we want children to read, write and compute. We want them to be able to think analytically and solve problems, to know basic information about our world, and become responsible citizens. They should learn to work together, and solve conflicts peacefully. We want them to develop an appreciation of the arts, and respect for cultures different from their own. We want children to learn skills that make them employable. We want to be sure they' re healthy and well-fed, and want them to find lifelong interests to make them happy.
How do we in Virginia determine whether our schools are meeting these expectations? We give kids a multiple choice test.
The Virginia Standards of Learning may be the most destructive thing politicians have done to public schools since "massive resistance."
The problem is not so much the standards themselvesalthough they are written with far too much inflexible detail. (For example, one standard insists that students learn to use interactive video-discs, a technology that was obsolete five years ago.) It' s the testing that is making the lives of Virginia educators and schoolchildren miserable, and robbing them of a first-rate education.
This year, only 6.5 percent of Virginia's schools scored high enough to met accreditation standards? What does that tell us? When so many kids fall short, one of the very first things any educator should ask himself is, "Was there something wrong with the test?"
SOL testing has actually caused the curriculum to contract. Whatever doesn't fit within the standards gets eliminated. Schools are forgoing field trips and cultural activities. Organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Theatre IV have seen severe decreases in the number of students they serve. Education, once a creative endeavor for many teachers and students, is becoming monotonous assembly-line labor.
Certainly we want schools to strive for excellence. But excellence cannot be judged solely on a single set of test scores. To assess students, staff, or entire schools this way is unfair, and contrary to everything we know about good educational practice. Not every child has the same interests, the same strengths, or the same level of ability. Some fifth graders may be ready to tackle seventh grade objectives; others are still struggling to master objectives from earlier years. Lockstep learning frustrates both groups of students.
Not every child does well under stressful, highly-structured test conditions. Fair assessment should also include teacher-made tests, daily class work, and students' ability to apply what they've learned in discussions, writing and practical problem-solving.
Judging students and schools on test scores alone is particularly unfair when we consider economic and social factors. Look at which local schools did best on last year' s SOL tests. Now look at where they're located, and the socio-economic status of their students. The correlation couldn't be clearer. In most cases, schools serving affluent neighborhoods scored highest on the test. It's hard enough for kids to grow up poor in a land of plenty; a state test shouldn't penalize them further.
The SOLs are pushing some of the very best teachers to consider other careers. Wonderful, enthusiastic teachers believe they no longer have time to do the projects that used to enliven their classrooms the very activities that excite students about learning. Instead, they feel obligated to "teach the test," with uninspiring drills and practice testing. More and more of their time is occupied with tedious record keeping.
In order to give students practice with "test-taking strategies," teachers are told to use more multiple-choice querstions in which the students use No.2 pencils to indicate their answers by filling in printed bubbles. However, by their very nature, multiple-choice questions close off original thinking. Many of the questions on the actual SOL tests are very well-written and challenging. But even good multiple-choice questions require less thought than other assessment methods such as essays, student-created products, or even questions answered with a student-generated word or sentence.
Is quality public education really at the top of our politicians' agendas? If so, why don't private-school students also have to take SOL tests? This exemption makes SOL testing look like a blueprint for sabotaging public education: Force public school kids to take an overly-difficult set of tests. When they don' t do so well, use the results to justify school vouchers or some other scheme to funnel public funds to private schools.
Fortunately there may be hope that decision-makers will be forced to reconsider the SOLs. An organization called Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs is calling for major changes. These include an end to the use of SOL test results as a graduation requirement; the use of multiple criteria for student evaluation; and modification of the standards themselves to incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving skills and to allow expansion and enrichment of the curriculum to meet community and individual needs. Parents' voices carry a lot of weight in public education; let' s hope this effort continues to gather momentum.
Meanwhile, it seems school boards and superintendents either boast about good test results, or play the blame game and threaten employees over poor ones. Almost no one is questioning the validity of the testing itself. What we need now are educational leaders who will advocate loftier goals for our public schools. I' d like to hear legislators, superintendents and school board members say, unequivocally, that they will not be satisfied to judge children, teachers or schools simply on the basis of a single battery of tests.Paul Fleisher is a veteran teacher with Richmond Public Schools, and recipient of the 1999 Thomas Jefferson Medal for Excellence in Science Education.
Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs can be contacted at 506 Bedford Avenue, Bedford, Virginia 24523 or http://personal.cfw.com/~dday/VASOLs.html
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.