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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

What Was Life Like Before Standards And High Stakes State Tests?

First, let me give credit to Becky Fisher (@beckyfisher73 on Twitter, who blogs at The Calculus of the  Classroom) for her help with this post. She brilliantly uncorked the thoughts and opinions expressed here.

As I read “Subverting Myself” and “Start Doing The Minimum…And The Maximum” it occurred to me that I have been teaching longer than many of my colleagues have been alive (this is my 36th year) and I remember the days when we didn’t have state tests.  We have been doing Standards of Learning tests for 10+ years in Virginia.  What was life like in Virginia’s schools before this?

In 1996, the Superintendent of Public Instruction issued a survey “to report on the implementation status of the 1995 Standards of Learning.” How do you think divisions responded to this survey?  At this point, we were still giving the “Passport Literacy Test” and had no tests designed from the SOL.  SOL tests began in 1998, according to the wikipedia entry.

Many teachers in my district were upset when the 1995 Virginia SOL were released because important content was moved around on them.  I taught with teachers who were upset that some content was listed in one grade instead of one we had previously done in my district.  Rocks were emphasized by the state in 5th grade, not 4th.  Statements like, “I lost rocks and got electricity?  That’s not fair!” could be heard throughout our halls. Third grade teachers lost their traditional field trip to Jamestown and Williamsburg as Colonial America became part of the 4th grade curriculum. I don’t recall many conversations about big ideas and thinking skills.  Teachers looked for their favorite topics and the content they held dear.

Early in the SOL testing game, the state conducted pencil-and-paper tests of the Computer/Technology Standards of Learning.  While the test format was a challenge, I served on the content review committee and know the thoughtful discussion behind the test content. I also know it was impossible to create a paper-pencil test on computer/technology standards that actually required kids to be technologically competent in order to succeed. Success on these tests could come from quality work books and worksheets, without students ever touching a computer. Bits, bytes, and binary logic were terms every fifth grade teacher in the state came to at least have heard of, if not understand. These tests were the first to go during a lean budget year.

What was life like before the 1995 SOL in Virginia? In my district, we taught rocks in 4th grade. What happened after the 1995 SOL? The topic of rocks and minerals was taught in 5th grade. Specific knowledge about American Indians moved to second grade and the SOL curriculum framework provided more information about what teaching American Indians means. The SOL testing process provided more information about how the state would assess our teaching, but still does not have to drive what our classrooms look like. How we do that is STILL incumbent upon the teacher.

My district pulled teachers together to establish what should be taught when long before the state did. Why not? It makes sense to come to some agreement about what children are expected to learn and be able to do at various points in their careers. It makes sense that while the learning of these standards should be evidenced in a way that is teaching methodology agnostic, we seem to think this is not the case. We seem to think multiple choice testing begs for worksheet-driven, reductionist teaching.

It doesn’t have to.

What if we looked at success on the multiple choice tests administered by the state as positive, unintended consequences to real learning and not the sole purpose of school?

What if we looked at the standards we have been handed and made them make sense by putting them into context?

Just because they give us tests that can be passed without deep study and meaningful work doesn’t mean we should teach that way.


About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


5 thoughts on “What Was Life Like Before Standards And High Stakes State Tests?

  1. I so agree Paula! We don’t have to teach that way, it is up to each teacher to yearn for something more for students. To give them the skills to think critically and with higher order thinking skills.

    Posted by Kelly | April 20, 2010, 6:43 pm
  2. Paula, Your passion and experience here are a model. How do YOU, in your classroom, deepen and make sensible state and district-mandated standards? Do your individual student’s test scores demonstrate your philosophy? do your “results” reflect not superficial teaching to the test but intensive, engaged learning, and the “positive, unintended consequences” of real learning?

    Thank you for this marvelous, countercultural, deep-thinking post.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2010, 7:43 am
  3. By the way, I recently talked to a young teacher in NYC who did not know that the U.S., and his city, had not always had mandatory yearly testing. He said, “REally? When did that start? What was it like back then?” I felt so very old. Now I can refer him to your post.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2010, 7:45 am
  4. Paula, certainly your message is true: “Just because they give us tests that can be passed without deep study and meaningful work doesn’t mean we should teach that way.”

    What complicates the issue for me isn’t so much the teaching as the testing structures imposed on teaching and learning. Given the weight testing results carry in political, legal, and budgetary matters, I understand why schools give multiple SOL predictors per year; I understand why “bubble kids” are pulled from electives and “non-core” classes; I understand why PLC data-analysis and conversation is often about which SOL benchmarks students have yet to master and how to review those standards so the kids do better on the tests.

    I would so much rather we spend our time teaching past the test and using inquiry and authentic assessment to help students develop for themselves the cognitive habits of inference-making and creative expression. I would rather we talk about teaching past the test than ensuring that students pass it through test-specific interventions. However, again, I understand how and why we don’t.

    In a school culture where you were expected to nominate students to be pulled out of inquiry-based, authentic-learning class, “core” or not, to participate a “bubble kid” test-prep course, how would you negotiate your actions and conversations between the culture’s expectations of you and the student’s need for inquiry, authenticity, meaning, and choice?

    Pondering also,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 10:27 am
  5. PS – I don’t mean to over-generalize above, but, rather, to find out more about how to achieve the teaching and learning we champion in schools that have been tasked with creating a standardized testing culture.

    With empathy,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 10:30 am

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