SOLs: Horrid or Humane?

I must admit that I wanted to write about the Standards of Learning (SOLs) in Virginia because, having taught for Roanoke City Schools for eight years, I was convinced that SOLs were my enemy largely because I felt pressured to “teach to the test”. But Virginia SOLs have recently evolved. Today we have The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSI was developed with the help of school administrators, teachers and other experts, to create a more solid framework for preparing Virginia’s students for college and the workforce.

The CCSS draws on international standards and the initiative appears to be married to emerging collegiate expectations for success. One must remember that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was the strong-armed mama who gave birth to the SOLs. Education writer, Alfie Kohn, said that the NCLB needed to be scrapped because it led to discrimination of poor students who must be “sentenced to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills.”

But when you think about it, doesn’t using the SOLs or any other ‘one method’ as a basic measurement of academic success, mean subjecting ‘all students’ to a rather narrow assessment paradigm sometimes referred to as “assembly line” dynamics? The National Center for Fair & Open Testing released this statement in 2004: “The (NCLB) law’s emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states accountable for making the systematic changes needed to improve student achievement.”

In 2007, the Aspen Commission on the NCLB announced some new goals for the reauthorization of the NCLB that included: effective teachers for all; improved accountability; fair and accurate assessments of student progress; parental involvement and empowerment, accurate data, high standards for all, ensuring adequate preparation of students for college and the workplace; and moving beyond the status quo to effective school improvement and student options. That ‘status quo’ goal leaves lots of room for interpretation; maybe too much.

Grade-specific standards for reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills need not be addressed separately by teachers in instruction, or for proper assessment. For example, one lesson unit may include development of writing skills by planning, revising, editing, etc. Preparation of a student, class newspaper might be one way that all of this could be accomplished. Indeed, the CCSSI calls for “reading across the curriculum,” a goal that may certainly be accomplished when students combine and compile their knowledge of non-English subjects with English subjects and skills in the formation of a newspaper.

I now believe that SOLs and the NCLB have their positive points, but these facts remain: I’ve seen too many students make designs out of the standardized test bubbles; artistic, but totally inaccurate; I’ve seen too many teachers and administrators tempted to change the scores; I’ve seen fourth graders in Roanoke City who did not know what “a jet” was and therefore, couldn’t answer the SOL question about flight; and I’ve seen too many students walk out of the classroom; all the classrooms – never to return. The SOLs may represent one light in the dark that, unfortunately, shows how very dark the dark is. These issues must continue to be put before   the citizenry so that dialogue persists.

– Mary Campagna / Roanoke