Freeda Cathcart (center) and SOL protesters at William Byrd.
Freeda Cathcart (center) and SOL protesters at William Byrd.

Former Roanoke City Council and House of Delegates candidate Freeda Cathcart may not have been successful to date in her runs for elected office, but she is undaunted. Cathcart has taken on another challenge with her “Let Teachers Teach” movement, which advocates for an overhaul of the Standards of Learning tests employed by the Commonwealth as part of the national No Child Left Behind effort.

The problem with the SOL’s, say many educators, is that schools often wind up “teaching to the test,” making sure that students can pass the 34 standardized tests that students must now take between elementary school and 11th grade. (The General Assembly did reduce the number of SOL tests in the last session.)

Governor Terry McAuliffe, making good on a campaign promise, has even set up a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee, which started meeting last month. Salem school superintendent Alan Seibert, Roanoke City schoolteacher Wade Whitehead and Roanoke County director of testing Ben Williams are on that board, which is expected to come up with further SOL revisions they will suggest to the General Assembly.

Cathcart gathered with several students and a teacher outside William Byrd High School last week, with several of the protestors holding banners asking for relief. “We are getting bipartisan support for reforming the SOL’s,” said Cathcart, who also claimed an industry that has sprung up around the tests has helped cloud the issue.

The Standards of Learning were devised as a way to make sure via testing that students in all parts of the state are getting the same education but critics say there is too much emphasis on the tests, with schools threatened with funding cutoffs and teachers evaluated based on student pass rates. That leads to, say critics, to teachers that spend most of the year ensuring that their students will pass those end of year exams – leaving less time for creative learning, field trips, etc.

“We want to make sure that we educate the public about why it’s so important we trust teachers to teach our children. These test manufacturers might not have the best interests of our children and our education system in mind,” said Cathcart. There are many factors as to why a child may not test well she added – are they coming to school hungry for example, or is their home environment not conducive to learning? All of that must be taken into account said Cathcart.

Among the students invited to the William Byrd event was Chris Howard-Woods, who just graduated from the Roanoke County school in June. Howard-Woods delivered a blistering valedictorian speech, spending most of his time at the podium criticizing the SOL’s, calling those tests no way to measure what a student has accomplished.

“You may have found yourself torn between giving your favorite lesson …and reviewing the hackneyed material for the SOL,” said Howard-Woods last week, “that will only bury your student’s innate curious intellect in mounds of multiple choice questions.” His valedictory comments in June at the Salem Civic Center drew loud applause. “Their imagination is stifled by number 2 pencils and darkly filled circles,” added Howard-Woods at the Byrd event.

Cathcart has a petition on her Let Teachers Teach Facebook page, a document that has several hundred signers to date. It urges that the SOL’s be reformed. “We’ll be delivering it to local school boards, [school] superintendents and the General Assembly,” Cathcart promises.

–  Gene Marrano

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