Local Educators To Serve on SOL Reform Committee

Salem Superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert.
Salem Superintendent Dr.  Alan Seibert.
Salem Superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert.

It’s called the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee, established by Governor Terry McAuliffe to tackle a sore subject for many educators – and students. That is, the SOL tests public school children in Virginia must now take by their junior year in high school. Proponents say the Standards of Learning are a good way to measure how students in all parts of the Commonwealth are doing when it comes to learning the same subjects and material.

Others say the emphasis on SOLs means educators are just “teaching to the test,” spending much of their time making sure students pass those exams given near the end of the school year. Opponents say the SOLs leave little room for creative learning and teaching. The Innovation Committee met for the first time last week in Richmond.

The General Assembly did reduce the number of SOL tests that elementary school students must now take, but one member of McAuliffe’s Innovation Committee said that was just a good start. Salem schools superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert represents the Roanoke Valley on the committee, along with Roanoke City schoolteacher Wade Whitehead and Roanoke County director of testing Ben Williams.

Seibert, a former school principal at South Salem Elementary and an assistant principal at two other Salem schools, thinks the committee’s work will be a multi-year effort. “We are going to try in a matter of months to reach some low hanging fruit, to give some deliverables to the General Assembly for 2015.” What really gets Seibert excited however is “delivering a strategic plan … for assessment and accountability for the next generation” of children in Virginia.

House Bill 930 created the Innovation Committee that McAuliffe has now staffed. The bill also reduced the number of elementary school SOL tests that must be taken. Seibert called that “an important first step.” Currently 34 tests must be taken by the time a student is a high school junior; they’ll take several less following the General Assembly’s action this past session. “What I think the General Assembly is looking for now is – what are we going to do for high school?” said Seibert, who was an assistant principal at Salem High School as he climbed the professional ladder.

His experience with the SOLs? He calls them “a 1990’s solution to a 1980’s problem,” wherein it was difficult to gauge how various subjects were being taught in different school systems statewide. It was reasonable and appropriate for Virginia to make sure there was consistency in the delivery. “The problem is that SOL system went from providing consistency to trying to create sameness,” Seibert adds.

What’s really needed, said Seibert, is to unlock individual potential, “not [to] make them widgets at the end of 13 years.” He can live with some standardized testing, “just not 34 of them.” Salem schools now also employ another test, called measures of academic progress, which Seibert labels as a tool to measure a student’s growth.

“It quickly benchmarks where a student is” at three different points during the school year, said Seibert. “As a parent that’s what I want to know. Did my child grow and learn this year?” He calls it “a more complete picture of student learning.” Seibert wants fewer top-down mandates on how to measure a student’s progress coming from Richmond; he’s hoping that localities can devise their own benchmarking methods and report those results to the state education department as an alternative.

That’s a position he will bring to the Innovation Committee. “Teachers are excited about the idea of being able to use the new tools and technologies to assess children that have come online since the early ‘90’s,” said Seibert. But those educators shouldn’t be overburdened, and “that’s where [as a starting point] this modest reduction in SOL tests in the elementary grades was important. – to create room to work.”

By Gene Marrano