Opting Out of the SOLs

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.”

 

Virginia’s Standards of Learning was a response (and rejoinder) to the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into national law in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush, initially holding only individual schools accountable through mandatory student testing.

Seven years later, under President Barack Obama, the “Race to the Top” educational grant program was established, tying federal funds to teacher (and administrative) performance through mandatory test scores. Like many public school state programs reacting to these new federal mandates, Virginia’s SOL testing was meant to set achievement standards for basic core subjects from kindergarten to 12th grade in schools across the commonwealth. But some argue it’s just too much.

“The closer you get to the classroom, the more people think there is too much testing,” says Robert Schaeffer, co-author of Standing Up to the SAT and the public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts that bills itself as The National Center for Free and Open Testing. “Public school parents, teachers, students, school administrative—even School board members and community leaders—are a key part of the reform movement. They see the damage being done on a day-to-day basis,” he says, adding that he’s “pleased that Virginia, among other states, is stepping away from testing overkill.”

In 2014, largely due to pressure from parents and teachers, the Virginia Department of Education (DOE) reduced the number of SOL assessments from 34 to 29 per school year. “The Governor’s Committee on Education proposed fewer SOLs, especially in fourth grade, and some rotations in English and History,” Carll says.

A FAQ at the DOE website states, “The Board of Education and the advisory SOL Innovation Committee are studying further steps to reduce the burden of testing while maintaining accountability.”

While only a small number of parents in Coastal Virginia are choosing to opt their kids out of testing, the numbers are growing. There were 681 statewide tests coded as parent refusals in the 2013–14 school year. Curiously, for 2014–2015, Virginia’s Department of Education split the numbers into two categories.

“Virginia schools administered 2.8 million SOL tests,” says Charles Pyle, the director of communications for the Virginia DOE. “Of those tests, 694 were coded as ‘student refusals,’ and 1,460 were coded as ‘parent refusals,’ indicating that the school received a communication from the home that the parents did not want the student to participate in SOL testing.” However you slice it, opt-out rates in Virginia more than tripled.

“Nationally, it has exploded,” Schaeffer says, adding that there were more than 500,000 refusals from state testing last year across the U.S. “It tripled in 2015 compared to 2014, which is the first year of any significant ‘opt-out’ numbers nationally.” The movement’s effectiveness varies from state to state, he says, naming New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and New Mexico as states where ‘opting out’ of standardized testing is in vogue.

 

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.

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