The following Commentary appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 10, 2011 at:
Author Harley Miles is the vice-chair of the Albemarle County School Board.
By HARLEY L. MILES
Taking the test: Local decisions boost opportunity
“On May 18, several superintendents and school board members representing a group of five school divisions met with the Virginia Board of Education’s Accountability Committee to request a waiver to pilot early Standards of Learning (SOL) testing in the middle-school grades.Collectively, this group of superintendents leads more than 30 percent of our commonwealth’s schoolchildren, and they represent some of the highest-performing school divisions in the state. (Albemarle, Fairfax County, Henrico, Virginia Beach and Roanoke County are the five school divisions.)
The superintendents and respective school boards are concerned that today’s students spend too much time focused on a single high-stakes test created by distant state officials and not enough time learning the skills colleges and employers are begging graduates to possess.The superintendents came before the committee to ask for permission to administer middle school reading and/or mathematics SOL tests at the end of the first semester as well as the current end-of-year SOL test administration.
Mid-year SOL testing would become a mastery filter and diagnostic tool. Students who demonstrate grade-level mastery at mid-year would be excused from taking the SOL tests at the end of the school year. Students who do not demonstrate mastery of the grade-level standards during mid-year testing would have the opportunity to re-test at the end of the school year.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Patricia Wright expressed much trepidation about such a request and approach. We are at a loss to understand her misgivings.
Imagine the freedom both students and teachers would have if the SOL test could be given mid-year.
Those students who demonstrate proficiency no longer have the specter of the SOL over their heads and are free to experience more rigorous, engaging learning that is tied to other standards — such as those measuring lifelong learning or college/workforce readiness — or to explore topics in depth, free from pacing guides designed to “cover” content in preparation for the SOLs.
Also, imagine the relief that students who do not demonstrate mastery at mid-year will have. Their instruction will be individualized for the students they are — free from repetition of concepts they have already mastered and full of opportunities to improve in those areas where growth is still needed.
They will approach the test with more measures of confidence in their preparation and with the additional opportunity to experience instruction that is more broad, holistic and not merely tied to “covering” a standard.
This waiver request is a basic recognition that we are accountable to and for children, and not merely standards. It understands that children learn at different rates and allows flexibility to ensure each child meets the standard, but through educational opportunities that recognize them as individuals with differing skills and needs.
To hold a student hostage in a classroom continuing to remediate or to remove a struggling student from enriched learning in order to continue test preparation does a disservice to both students.
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will argue that SOLs are a measure of rigor and that engaging instruction can and should be conducted daily, as preparation for the SOLs.
But teachers, parents and students know better. They know SOLs are one kind of assessment, a multiple-choice test, which measures mostly fact recall and some application of information. They are neither engaging nor relevant. To advocate that SOLs are a comprehensive educational experience — or that they demonstrate a level of rigor in instruction, learning or assessment — is disingenuous.
We must ask ourselves why is it so important to the state that all students take the same test on the same day or week at the end of the year?
Being exempt from a course or requirement by showing existing proficiency is a common practice in higher education and the workplace. Businesses and colleges do not feel it is a good use of employee/student time to sit through a class when one already knows what will be taught.
What is the fear that Dr. Wright has in allowing our middle schools to merely do what countless universities and organizations do every day? Why so entrenched in process, in bureaucracy?
The request of these five superintendents and school board members is a threat because early proficiency of students would relegate the state scorecard to a minor hurdle one has to jump over, rather than the focus of instructional conversations across the state.
The role of SOLs and the VDOE would diminish; control of the conversation and the learning would shift. It appears that Dr. Wright and the VDOE are concerned about protecting the bureaucratic structures they have built and are vested in, as opposed to being concerned about the purpose of assessment or the needs of students. The requested waiver and pilot may present a positive step in the evolution of the state assessment program. We won’t know for certain unless we give it a try.
We ask Dr. Wright to reconsider her position of not supporting the waiver. We certainly hope the Board of Education will grant the waiver and monitor the pilot’s implementation process and progress. It’s been said, “It is better to try than to wonder.” ”
Harley L. Miles is vice chair of the Albemarle County School Board.
For a further glimpse into why superintendents are trying to increase emphasis on deep, rigorous learning opportunities for students and decrease focus on “test-prep” learning, read Yong Zhao’s post:
Can you be globally competitive by closing your doors and raising test scores?