You are not SOL at The Sycamore School, Reprise

Last year, when our school was being developed, we blogged about the SOLs. Now that we are are open and our students are thriving, and we have practical experience in authentic assessment, we felt the subject deserved another post. 

The Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) are the Virginia public school’s standardized testing program that sets learning and achievement expectations for core subjects. The SOL Test is a minimum competency test designed to assess whether students have mastered the basic concepts of a core subject area. The evolution of the SOLs is a story of how a well-intentioned educational tool has undermined authentic learning.

The SOL learning strands themselves are not “bad.” SOL standards can serve as a pacing guide, to ensure that teachers cover the basic tenants of biology, algebra or Spanish I. It’s the SOL test that is problematic. Many school systems mandate teaching to a test. Schools have created “packets” that teachers use to teach each student in each class the same concept on the same day in the same way. This scripted teaching restricts, if not destroys, teachers’ freedom to teach in a way that best fosters comprehension, addresses different learning styles and reaches different learners.

Moreover, individual school ratings, accreditation, and district funding are tied to SOL scores, creating incredible stress for school system administrators who pass that down to teachers who pass the stress to students and their parents. The emphasis on high stakes testing misses the point of education.

Teaching to the SOLs narrows instruction and undermines the quality of education. Best teaching practices include regularly offering engaging hands-on learning opportunities, maintaining a small class size, cultivating personal adult relationships, teaching students how to think (metacognitive strategies), offering expressive arts activities, incorporating student interests into the curriculum and letting students have a role in decision making. Do you think teachers have time to do this if they’re instructed to teach to a test?

No single test score can adequately measure student achievement. Moreover, the SOLs do not assess critical thinking, creative problem solving and the ability of students to apply what they learn. Measuring student achievement is not easy and involves using multiple assessment tools including performance-based assessments, student portfolios and standards-based projects. We should include assessments that demonstrate whether students can apply knowledge to real world tasks.

Another example of how SOL “success” is out of control: I just read about SOL Boot Camps that are being offered on Saturdays in Arlington. Schools are quite literally inviting elementary students to cram for a standardized test that is measuring minimal mastery. I even know of families that have hired tutors solely to prepare their child to take the SOLs. Why? Parents are misguided into thinking that the SOL is a measure of their child’s academic success. SOLs don’t even impact the student’s transcript until he or she reaches high school where passing the tests are required for a diploma.

Have you ever read an SOL test? The tortured wording and esoteric sentence structure makes the test itself unnecessarily difficult. The SOL is not assessing whether a student knows the information; it’s assessing whether students can figure out the question – which can be a challenge, even for bright students. SOLs involve a significant amount of reading, so if students have a language-based learning disability, attention difficulties, or English is not their first language, passing these tests can prove even more difficult.

It takes a brave teacher to go against the system and teach their class the way they’d know is effective. Why don’t we trust teachers to teach and evaluate our students in the way they deem best? Why do we think that standardized tests are the defining criteria of achievement? Why do we think that teaching to a test prepares our students for college and the workforce? What is it about the SOLs that we so blinding and bravely trust?

Students at The Sycamore School don’t take SOLs (cue a group cheer!) As a private school, we’re not allowed to administer the SOLs. What a blessing.

Academic capability, mastery, and success can be measured – absolutely – but it takes knowing the student and being able to assess them individually, which is not what SOLs do at all. We assess learning and mastery by using authentic assessments. Authentic assessments have real world application beyond getting a grade on a test. Instead of multiple-choice tests, students have to perform in some way, to demonstrate their understanding.

For example, if we were trying to assess someone’s math ability, we would give them a real-life problem to solve. In English, students were learning about narrative text, so they dissected narrative texts to determine commonalities and then applied these commonalities when they wrote their own complex narratives. In History, when studying the great depression, students acted out the life of a family to demonstrate how the economy and government policies impacted citizens. School can be challenging, without standardized tests, and without being stressful.

So instead of cramming for SOLs, The Sycamore School students are spending their spring taking field trips: visiting museums that have exhibits related to our curriculum, starting an outdoor garden and wrapping up our community service projects. We create meaningful learning opportunities that foster increased comprehension and retention. And we have fun.

If you or your children are stressed out this SOL season, we invite you to learn more about The Sycamore School at an upcoming school information session

Posted in: