Opting Out of the SOLs
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In December, Democrats and Republicans united to amend the Federal rules surrounding NCLB standardized testing, and President Obama signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act into law (expected to go into effect later this year), which would wipe out the earlier mandates punishing teachers and schools for subpar pass rates.
“The new law removes any federal consequences for teachers or schools for test scores and will give more power over to the states to determine how test scores will be used,” Schaeffer says. “The new rules would potentially give more power to parents to take their kids off of standardized testing programs.” He’s quick to remind that the government is not reducing the number of federally-mandated tests with the Every Student Succeeds Act. “They just eliminated the consequences for them.”
“It gives us an opening—an opportunity—to get away from this national nightmare of ‘test and punish,’” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, which represents thousands of teachers nationwide, told the Here and Now public radio program on the eve of the bill’s passing. Standardized testing has, she says, “corrupted what it means to teach."
In Virginia, the rules governing the opting out of SOL tests have always been murky and somewhat hard to follow. “Virginia's assessment program does not have an opt-out provision,” Pyle states. “Students are expected to take the assessments that correspond with the instruction they have received in the subject or course. If a student refuses to take a test, the assessment counts as a ‘fail.’"
In Virginia high schools, “fail’” means just that. If you opt out, you won’t graduate. But in elementary and middle grades, the rules are seemingly up to each individual school; penalties to children would depend, Pyle says, “on the division, or building-level policy about whether to factor SOL scores into letter grades.”
In her experience, Cavalier-Dorsett says that, “in Elementary school, if the student doesn’t take the test, it’s going to be put down that they have failed. The schools have no capability of putting down on the test that the student has opted out; it’s computerized now, so it’s counted as a zero. Kids in elementary who opt out may have to have remedial help … some will be viewed by administrative staff as difficult.”
“Most states are murky when it comes to rules,” Schaeffer says, “and part of the murkiness is because it’s not in the law either way; it’s moot, and it becomes up to administrative interpretation.”
Virginia’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Patricia Wright, issued an official statement (available on the DOE website) explaining that, if a student refuses to take the SOLs, he is given a zero, and a written statement is required from parents. The zero is for the SOL testing only and isn’t counted toward the student’s regular grades but held against the individual school when it comes to receiving accreditation.
In May, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, issued a statement denouncing the anti-testing movement. “Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community,” it read, “because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes, even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused.”
Schaeffer and FairTest have documented an unfortunate byproduct to the testing benchmarks set by the states and the federal government, one that has hit close to home. “Widespread corruption is an inevitable consequence of the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing,” he says, citing the headline-grabbing cheating scandals that occurred in 2010 in several Norfolk schools, including Campostella Elementary School and Lafayette-Winona Middle School.
“Because of the way that No Child Left Behind was set up, the schools most likely to make inadequate yearly progress were primarily serving the poor, minority and second language kids. They faced the hardest tasks.”
In the last five years, Schaeffer says, there have been confirmed cases of widespread test cheating in 43 states, the District of Columbia and in military defense schools.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act is designed to lighten the pressure. But Cavalier-Dorsett isn’t so sure. “I think things are moving so slowly that by the time anything changes, these kids will have already graduated,” she says. “They are still going to give the tests. Yes, it’s going to drop down to a more local level, and maybe the federal government won’t be monitoring it as much. But I think they are still going to apply pressure.”
Yates, still on the fence about opting her kids out of the SOLs, is keeping an eye on the changes, wondering if they are “a precursor to cutting federal funds in general.”
She also worries about how a generation of testing has affected child development. “I have a little kindergartener, and things have changed since my older kids went to kindergarten,” she says. “Now there’s very little time to do anything that’s not going to be on a test in two or three years. I wonder if this system is producing test-takers, not people who can think and process things and function outside of a classroom.”
Click here for more information on FairTest and the Opt Out Movement. For more information on Williamsburg Opt Out, contact Suzanne Cavalier-Dorsett at 480-810-5593.