Are these required tests an important set of standards or just burdensome guidelines?
By: Ben Swenson
Youd think it was some exercise in militaryspeak with all the acronyms: SOL, NCLB, AYP. Any public school teacher in Virginia, however, can tell you that these terms dont concern men and women in uniform but millions of school children instead. These acronyms and more (and there are many) govern much of the instruction that kids receive after they walk sleepily through the doors of Virginias public schools.
Its likely that youll hear one of these more often than others: SOLs. Teachers and students hear it almost daily. The SOLs are maligned by some, exulted by others, continually evaluated and revised. SOL tests are also closely guarded. Anyone who has taken or administered the exam is strictly prohibited from discussing its contents with anyone, including teachers. SOLs are such an important part of public school instruction that the acronym itself lost its humorous association (as in a-certain-something out of luck) long ago.
So whats the big fuss about SOLs? Are they an important set of standards that are making students college and career-ready? Or are they burdensome guidelines that kill creativity in the classroom? What you see depends on where you stand. Here well explain SOLs and give you a general idea of why they evoke such strong reactions from people and why many folks would just as soon get rid of them as have them remain an integral part of public education.
SOL is an acronym for Standards of Learning. The SOLs are a list of facts and skills that students all across Virginia should know after completing a course. SOLs exist for each grade and most subjects; there are SOLs for English, math, science, social studies and eight other non-core subjects, like fine arts. Every set of standards is broken down into as many as a dozen or more topics, each with their own sub-topics. For example, this is one of fifth grade sciences standards, SOL 5.6 (there are seven altogether, 5.1 to 5.7):
Interrelationships in Earth/Space Systems
5.6 The student will investigate and understand characteristics of the ocean environment. Key concepts include:
a) geological characteristics (continental shelf, slope, rise);
b) physical characteristics (depth, salinity, major currents); and
c) biological characteristics (ecosystems).
Fifth grade science teachers can add onto this by teaching about, say, underwater volcanoes if they want to, but the concepts above are the ones theyre required to cover.
At the end of the school year, there are SOL tests, but not every grade or course has one. For example, most high school students are required to take English all four years of high school, but they take English SOL tests only one of those years. A middle school student wont take a science SOL test until eighth grade. A small minority of students with special needs might take very few or even no SOL tests in school, although there is an alternative assessment theyre required to take. Nevertheless, the typical student who remains in Virginias public schools takes more than 30 SOL tests in grades K to 12.
So why should the general public care about SOL tests? Because in more ways than one, theyre a report card. In high school, individual students earn so-called verified credits by passing SOL tests. Before a student graduates, he or she must earn a specified number of these credits.
On a broader scale, SOL tests are a report card for individual schools and districts as well as the state as a whole. The Virginia Department of Education publishes the percentage of students who pass specific SOL tests in each of these scales. Its a way to publically acknowledge progress being made by taxpayer-funded education.
And its the law. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, or NCLB, requires states to have a set of standards and accompanying tests that help identify both struggling and successful schools. The SOLs are Virginias answer to that.
Virginia uses the data it collects from SOL tests in part to determine if a school is annually awarded a status it calls Accredited. There are a few statuses that are something less than accredited: Provisionally Accredited and Accredited with Warning, for instance. For the 20112012 school year, 96 percent of Virginias more-than-1,800 schools are accredited. Only two schools in the entire commonwealth received the lowest designation, Accreditation Denieda middle school in Petersburg and Lafayette-Winona Middle School in Norfolk.
Virginia reports its SOL data to the federal government as a way to demonstrate that state schools are making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, in improving test scores. The kicker here, and the provision of NCLB that some deem the most controversial, is that by 2014, 100 percent of students tested in reading and math must pass the test. Its highly unlikely that even the best teachers in the best-funded districts will have every student pass these tests year after year.
If all these numbers are making your head spin, youre not alone. School districts have entire positions dedicated to the tests and figures. Many public school educators arent even familiar with all the intricacies of state and federal education law.
So, could you pass an SOL test? Thats not exactly a fair question, because the answer is a definite maybe. For example, heres a question from spring 2010s third grade math test:
Which is true?
A 4,589 > 4,708
B 4,389 > 4,708
C 4,709 > 4,708
D 4,609 > 4,708
Aced it, right? Not to burst your bubble, but most Virginia 9-year-olds probably picked C too.
Now for a real test of your long-term memory. Heres one from the 2009 high school chemistry SOL test:
Which of these is most likely to form between elements transferring electrons to form oppositely charged particles?
A A metallic bond
B A hydrogen bond
C A covalent bond
D An ionic bond
Those of us who didnt know that the correct answer there is D can take comfort from the fact that the 17-year-olds who got that question right had nine months of chemistry class before answering it.
Instead of asking whether the general public could pass SOL tests, heres a question that teachers often ask: Do these exams accurately gauge what a student is supposed to know after taking the class for a school year? The answer, once again, is not so cut-and-dry.
A multiple choice test is a good way to assess a lot of information in a relatively small package. School divisions and the state simply dont have the resources available to review a years worth of work for each student to determine if he or she has learned enough to pass the course.
But think about, for example, United States history,all the causal relationships, the comparisons that can be made between eras. Its incredibly intricate, and many teachers struggle to fit it all in one year. Can a 70-question multiple choice test demonstrate that a student truly grasps more than the basics, more than Andrew- Jackson-was-the-seventh-president? Many would argue no.
This is just one of the shortcomings of SOL tests and one of several reasons that some people are calling for change. Another seeming incongruity is that a student isnt required to pass an SOL test to pass a course. Its possible that a student receives passing grades for class work throughout the year and fails the SOL test miserably. Still, that student will move on to the next course or level because the SOL test doesnt count as a grade.
Another criticism sometimes heard in the faculty lounge is that the so-called cut scores, or the number of questions a student must get right on a test to pass, is not realistic on some tests. For example, to pass the high school English reading test, a student must get 28 out of 50 questions correct, percentage-wise a 56, which, with virtually any other school or employment assessment out there, would be a solid F.
Some teachers suggest that SOLs stifle innovative lesson plans in the classroom, that students are shortchanged when concepts, such as our ocean volcanoes example above, get shelved because they arent included in the standards.
But this argument could just as easily be used to defend the SOLs because they ensure that teachers will, indeed, cover what an expert panel of educators has deemed important. The SOLs make sure, for example, that a Virginia Studies teacher doesnt spend half the year teaching about Jamestown while not even bothering to mention the Jim Crow Era.
And in response to the limitation of multiple choice teststhat its just rote learning regurgitated and not a reflection of true learningthe state has been making corrective strides. On math SOL tests, for example, students will have to fill in some answers instead of choosing the correct one from among four choices. Social studies multiple choice questions are becoming much more analytical, too, requiring the students to think more before selecting an answer.
For better or worse, however, the SOLs are all that Virginias public school teachers and students have known for more than a decade. Because the SOLs are so firmly entrenched, and because theyre required by federal law, its not likely that theyll be replaced anytime soon, meaning that educators will continue to cast a glow on the SOLs successes and heap criticism on their shortcomings, one school day at a time.