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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Who's Afraid of Standards?

Critics of the Virginia Standards of Learning claim that the tests don't allow teachers and students to explore their interests. But the tests might force schools to cut out time-wasting activities and concentrate on performance.

When my older daughter was in 2nd grade, the three 2nd grade teachers in her school corralled all the students into one room every Friday morning and showed them movies. Some of these were nature documentaries; more often they were animated features only tenuously related to the curriculum. The teachers had been doing this for years with their principal's approval, brushing off the objections of parents who thought that the time could be better spent.
That was the year before the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) took effect. Now the Friday movies are a thing of the past, and teachers struggle to meet the demands of the new curriculum. Although SOL tests are not given to 2nd graders, preparing the children for these tests requires the cooperation of teachers at all grade levels.
The effect of the Standards was immediate and striking. For example, my older daughter has never been taught cursive handwriting, but teachers now introduce it in 2nd grade. Students and teachers pay more attention to spelling, and teachers integrate subjects to reinforce other parts of the curriculum. Some creative but time-inefficient projects have been cut from the curriculum, but others have been reshaped with clearer academic goals.
It's no wonder that most of the parents I know support the Standards of Learning, although we worry about our own children's test scores. The Standards did for my daughters what I could not: forced a complacent school to sharpen its focus on performance and cut out time-wasting activities. The Standards are designed to push everyone harder, and the ambitiousness of the curriculum doesn't leave much room for downtime.

Fact Drilling or Creative Thinking?

Critics of the SOL claim that teachers have no time to explore topics that interest them and their students but aren't related to the tests. Worse, critics believe that the state, by listing what children must know, has told teachers how to teach, and the method implicitly prescribed—rote memorization—not only is the one that teachers and students enjoy least, but also does not develop the analytical skills necessary for higher education.
My daughter's experience in social studies bears this out. After 5th graders statewide flunked the first SOL test because it covered material from the 4th grade social studies curriculum, the state divided the social studies requirement between 4th grade Virginia history, tested at the end of 4th grade, and 5th grade world history, included in the comprehensive 5th grade SOL.
The result in my older daughter's 4th grade class was a major emphasis on social studies and a discouraging amount of fact drilling. The SOL tests had established not only a minimum level of learning, but also a maximum one, because the kids who had already mastered the information were forced to go over it again and again, instead of learning new material. If this is what the SOL tests mean for my bright, inquisitive child, then I want out.
But was this fact drilling necessary? Does mandating a minimum level of knowledge destroy all creativity in teaching? My daughter memorized nearly every fact that she was given but still achieved well under a perfect score, indicating that a lot of miscommunication exists between the people writing the tests and the teachers preparing students for them. When teachers understand what is expected of them, they may not be so overwhelmed, and they may find that the memorization required is not beyond the ordinary student, even without continual drilling. Engaging the students creatively may bring them to a better mastery of the facts than drills do.
For example, my older daughter's 3rd grade curriculum covered the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and China, as well as Native American civilizations. The 3rd grade teachers loved the material, and their enthusiasm fired the kids through a year's worth of engaging projects, with very little drilling. At the end of the year, their students had a pass rate of more than 90 percent on the social studies portion of the SOL test. In contrast, their scores in other subjects were lower, particularly in areas such as science that they learned through hand-outs and review sheets.
Critics of standardized tests say that the tests emphasize facts rather than critical-thinking skills. I am not familiar enough with the SOL tests to know how well the designers are handling this problem. Certainly, it is not their intent to make the curriculums ignore critical thinking; quite the reverse. But what's wrong with learning facts? As far as I know, critics of standardized tests don't argue that fact learning is inherently bad, only that knowing facts by themselves doesn't amount to an understanding of the subject as a whole. This is correct. Yet the reverse is also true.
Just as sophisticated thinking requires a mastery of language, understanding a subject demands a knowledge of its facts. Once the facts are learned, then the students can use them creatively to form theses and draw comparisons. Someday, the students may forget them, but by then those facts will have served their more advanced purpose: teaching how to think. It would be a mistake to assume that if it's OK to forget the facts eventually, it's OK never to have learned them.
The media often report innovative, exciting education programs that engage kids in learning and hold them up as examples of what imposed standards cannot do. It is as if the public must choose between engaging learning and mastering facts. This strikes me as disingenuous. Creative, energetic teaching should be the goal of every teacher and every school. But so should meeting specific, testable standards.

An Ambitious Experiment

In an ideal world, statewide standards would not be necessary. Gifted educators who teach to every learning style would push every child to reach his or her potential. Competency tests would be superfluous because by the end of high school, every child would pass them. But here and now in Virginia, many children are underserved educationally and are graduating from high school unprepared for the demands of either college or the workplace. And even in well-served areas like the one in which I live, good teachers sometimes kid themselves into thinking that showing Pocahontas counts as teaching history. Tough, uniform standards give all schools a reason to improve the quality of all their students' education, not just the education of students enrolled in special programs.
As a parent, I see the SOL as an ambitious experiment, but not one that threatens disaster if it fails. If state officials won't fund summer programs and after-school tutoring in poorer areas, many schools won't see pass rates rise fast enough to retain their accreditation. But it seems obvious to me that if a large number of schools still can't meet the requirements after a few years, state officials will change them. They will have no other option.
Meanwhile, the students are getting the benefit of raised expectations. I want my daughters to see their high school diplomas as prizes won with effort, not as certificates of good attendance. I want them motivated by the challenge of a difficult program. I want them to take satisfaction in the dignity of hard work. I think that the SOL tests are good for them.
Yes, I'm a little worried about what happens to kids who can't make the grade. My younger daughter has a reading disability and difficulty with memory tasks, and she may struggle to meet academic standards. But I prefer that she and her teachers deal with it year by year, with the SOL tests as checkpoints, rather than see her get by and receive a meaningless diploma. Before the SOL, my younger daughter would have been one of the lucky ones: a student with a recognized disability, entitled to special services to keep her on track. In contrast, most low achievers simply got lost in the shuffle. By holding schools accountable, I hope that kids will receive intervention earlier. Thus, the SOL will mark not the end of innovative programs but, maybe, the start.
Every parent worries that his or her own kid won't make the grade. Parents want their children to learn, but even more, we want them to succeed. It is tempting to insist that schools promote them even when they haven't mastered the work, that they graduate even if their skills aren't adequate for college or a job. Then we blame the schools when our young adults fail. This happens now, and it isn't fair to the schools or the students. Parents—and teachers, too—want to protect their kids from failure. But to a student who tries, fails, tries again, and finally succeeds, there's no sweeter victory.
So who's afraid of high standards? Let's give them a chance and see what our students can do.

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