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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

The SOL: No Easy Answers

Although some believe that Virginia's new Standards of Learning are a panacea, and others believe that they will result in disaster, the new Standards are really a double-edged sword.

Before the Virginia Board of Education adopted the new Standards of Learning (SOL), math teachers at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, taught the same topics that they teach now but in a different order. Teachers used explorations, labs, and group work in their classes, but they did not collaborate often. Most math teachers did not hesitate to spend more time on a concept that students found difficult to grasp, even if it meant that they might not have time to cover other topics.
Since the board adopted the SOL, teachers more often use direct instruction instead of group activities to cover all of the new standards curriculum. Teachers now feel greater pressure to keep to a schedule; whether students grasp a concept or not, the class must move on. However, the increased demand for successful test results means that teachers collaborate more to learn from one another's instructional strategies.

A Mixed Bag

Less time for certain types of creative, group activities but increased interest in professional collaboration—the Standards are a double-edged sword. Although much of the criticism of and praise for end-of-year tests has been expressed in black-and-white terms, the Standards are a mixed bag: neither a cure-all for education's shortcomings nor the disaster initially feared. But because the Standards are here to stay, the time for us to argue about their merits has passed.
Many people believe that administering more and harder tests will pave the way to better, more effective schools. Such thinking equates the most successful schools with those that enroll the highest percentage of students who pass standardized tests. The problem schools, of course, are those that enroll the greatest percentage of students who fail. Specific home, environment, and socioeconomic characteristics—regardless of their influence on students' test scores—are not factors in determining the percentage of students who need to pass the Standards test for a school to retain its accreditation.
Perhaps because SOL test scores do not yet have an impact on whether a student receives a diploma, most students and many parents do not yet feel the same pressures that teachers feel regarding the SOL tests. This year, pass or not, students are not affected; in 2004, the stakes get much higher when students who don't pass the tests won't graduate. Getting the students to take the SOL seriously is a challenge to educators right now, and teachers have difficulty seeing whether what they are doing in the classroom is working.
Most teachers also believe that students do not notice any significant differences in classroom instruction. As the test results become more important to each student, this may change. The pressure to get through the curriculum is real, and because a large amount of material must be covered, there will be less time for creative projects.

Measuring True Learning?

I am fortunate to work in a school where many students perform well on standardized tests: SOL, SAT, Stanford 9, advanced placement. Yet I wonder how much of our students' success reflects real learning and how much reflects their ability to memorize facts. The teachers and faculty in our school certainly try to help all students learn, but are we truly effective? Are we perpetuating students' patterns of success or failure established long before they arrived here? The way most high schools are designed, students who enjoyed success in elementary and junior high school are far more likely to enjoy continued success. Those students who have developed study skills and self-discipline will do well. However, the grades of academically struggling students who enter high school generally deteriorate further. Schools are not equipped to help significantly; there are simply too many students for educators to provide individual instruction and monitoring.
Even in accelerated courses like advanced placement, students with skill problems cannot achieve high marks. They may understand the content, but they lack the tools to approach it, such as how to write a paragraph or organize an essay. And at the college level, the students who lack these fundamental skills face real problems with academic work.
In the end, do assessments such as the SOL tests help us educate more effectively? In some ways, they do; there is certainly greater interest in ensuring that students have exposure to the complete curriculum in an SOL-tested course. And even if these tests do not help as much as some hope that they will, I don't imagine that any student will really be hurt by having to take yet another series of standardized tests in May.
The great danger presented by the SOL tests is that we risk losing sight of the chief aims of teaching: to educate students as well as possible and to prepare them to think and to contribute effectively to society. Will schools that provide a rich, challenging education to diverse students who often do not respond to drills and rote memorization lose their communities' support and confidence, as they lose their accreditation? Will first-rate, talented teachers, who view effective teaching as a creative art more than test preparation, begin to feel stifled and limited in work that they once found exciting and energizing?
Teachers are not against the notion of accountability. Most understand the need for it. What they object to is the imposition of "something else" from the outside, another administrative directive from afar, without feeling that they have had significant opportunity to voice objections or recommendations. In strategic-planning meetings, some teachers struggle to quell their frustration and annoyance about not being able to choose the measuring stick imposed on their classes, even as they recognize the importance of these test results for their students and their own professional reputations.
There are no easy answers, for sure. But before we reward or punish schools for their test scores, I believe that we should include in the equation all the factors that affect those scores. We must learn to appreciate all the components that create effective teachers and excellent schools.

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