Opting Out of the SOLs

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Cailin Yates has six children currently enrolled in Williamsburg-James City County public schools. They span the grade range—from kindergarten to high school. The busy mom, who works at a SAP (Systems, Applications and Products) systems integration firm, DataXstream, says that, for the past few years, she’s wrestled with taking her kids out of standardized testing. “I look at the option every year, and I frankly don’t know how my kids would be treated in the school system if I did it. And some of my kids need help.”

There’s a sense of obligation, she says. “Of the people that I know, nobody likes the tests, but there’s a feeling that you’re taking one for the school.” But it worries her. One of her elementary school students didn’t even attend school the week of SOL testing, except to take the tests. “There was so much stress in that building that it made her ill. I would come get her, and then bring her back to take the test.”

Today’s public school students are sick of tests, echoes Suzanne Cavalier-Dorsett. “Kids are filled with anxiety. They aren’t having childhoods while they are at school.”

Cavalier-Dorsett is a therapist by trade and the mother of two boys. Last year, the Williamsburg resident pulled her eldest out of public schools and placed him in a private academy, mainly because of what she perceives as the negative effects of the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) program. She wanted to opt her son out of the tests at his middle school, but he begged her not to, afraid of being stigmatized. 

“I can see what the SOLs are doing to parents and kids,” she says. “Anxiety, rage, obsessive-compulsive disorders are going up, teachers on anti-depressants … people don’t really have a full clue about what’s happening.”

Cavalier-Dorsett recently started “Williamsburg Opt Out,” a parents' organization—the first of its kind in Hampton Roads—that advocates against testing. With less than a dozen members so far, Williamsburg Opt Out’s goal as a neighborhood organization is similar to a growing number of other community-based groups forming across the country, emulating national organizations (like United Opt Out). “Basically it’s a way to get parents and teachers to come together and talk about issues surrounding these tests,” she says.

Her distrust started with homework. “My son brought home his notebook, and it was just stuff to memorize, really dry information,” she says. “The curriculum is now based on what’s going to appear on the SOLs, not creative learning. The way things are right now, with all of the drilling of facts, they won’t retain anything.”

“They are practicing, practicing, practicing, and there is so much pressure,” Yates says. “Teachers are sending home notes like ‘please review this’ over and over, and the children are continually reminded that they have the big test coming, and it’s often like the coach of a big game yelling, ‘C’mon everybody, let’s go; we’ve got to win …'"

Standardized testing places a greater importance on passing the test rather than learning the subject, says Victoria Carll, a Richmond teacher who started RVA Opt Out in 2013. “Teachers become encumbered by pass rates and are more focused on teaching small facts than on overall curriculum. Students are hammered with SOL worksheets and especially get drilled toward the end of the year. The entirety of the curriculum has shifted, even down to Pre-K and Kindergarten.” It’s only natural that teachers will teach to the test, she says, because “they get evaluated based on the students performing well.”

Carll says that Cavalier-Dorsett’s Williamsburg chapter brings the number of Virginia anti-testing groups to five. There are also Opt Out organizations serving Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. “We don’t want to hurt schools. That’s not our mission,” she says. “We want the schools to back us up because we know the schools don’t enjoy the SOLs either. There’s nothing here that is enriching lives, not the parent’s, teacher’s or child’s.”

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