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Learning at its Best

What a Difference 2 Years Makes

In May, 2010, I wrote this post about  being our school’s testing coordinator. How things have changed since then….

Last week, I had a kid ask to take another SOL-like test because, as her homeroom teacher put it, “she is a nervous kid and so anxious to do well.” I’m teaching a 5th grade literacy and math class this year, and throughout the year, whenever I’ve introduce a new skill or unit, they have asked me if it will be on the SOL test and wanted to make sure they had that skill down–it’s not about understanding, though–it’s about making sure they can take the test on it and do well.

Last week, kids asked for examples like our “new type of question” on the SOL (rigorous, technology-enhanced test items that will require mastery of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills from the state viewpoint). Student awareness is heightened, their concern is heightened, and some of them are saying they worry about these tests at night.

These are kids who got perfect, or close to perfect scores on our state tests last year–and the year before. These are kids who have straight A’s (or mostly straight A’s) on their report cards. These are kids who can talk to you intelligently about Bloom’s taxonomy levels and understand what work at high levels means–and how it feels differently from worksheets. These are kids who write blog posts about changing the world, being one with planet earth, caring about homeless people, wanting to rid the world of animal testing, and who share TED talks with each other.  These are kids who loved hearing Randy Paush’s Last Lecture and still talk about the impact it had on their thinking. These are kids who are organizing to do a mini talent show to raise money to support our homeless population in Charlottesville. So why are they worrying so much about what I call the “stupid state tests”?

Is it their need for perfection? (I have a LOT of kids this year who care about getting 100%!) Is it the increased talk from a new principal?  (This is her second year, and data is and has been an emphasis with her for our teachers.)  Is it increased talk from parents? (They have certainly asked questions about the accountability each time we’ve met this year.) Is it increased talk/concern from the classroom teachers? (Both 5th grade teachers are different from those mentioned in that earlier post.) Is it increased stories in the news (TV, newspapers, online, etc.)?  I don’t know if it’s any of those, a combination, or something entirely different, but the kids are MUCH more concerned this year than in years past–and vocal about their concerns.

When it gets to the point that 10 year olds are telling me they are worrying about test scores at night, before they go to bed, something is wrong with the system and the intent of the tests, in my mind. (Not that I don’t think something is wrong with the emphasis on multiple choice tests as the sole measure of their knowledge, anyway, but when it affects kids’ sleep, it’s really wrong!)

So, when will the adults making the choice to test kids to death and rob them of their sleep figure out this is NOT the way to go?  When will parents stand up and say “ENOUGH! My kid is not taking these tests!” When will teachers begin speaking up to the “powers that be” to complain about the lost sleep (on both kids’ and adults’ parts) and the wasted time, and the need for something different?

Our Superintendent is trying: she and 4 other Superintendents from around Virginia asked to use the tests in a different way, but our state Superintendent has completely circumvented their creativity and resourcefulness as she reinforces the idea of kids continuing to spend time taking tests they have shown they really don’t need.  So, schools can get a waiver if they’ve scored 95% for three years–a waiver from accreditation, but not the tests.  The school still has to give the tests, the scores are still reported to state and parents, but accreditation is not an issue for those three years.  This allows “schools to empower teachers to move away from excessive review and practice — the “drill and kill” approach to preparing for the SOLs — and focus instead on providing rich and varied instruction that exceeds the standards.” (Pat Wright, our state Sup’t).


Does she really think this will make a difference?

When, at the same time, our teacher evaluation system is required by the state to tie teacher evals to student academic progress? Many systems are using the SOL scores to show that progress.  So let’s give your school a waiver where the “school maintains full accreditation for three years — even if pass rates slip.”   BUT, teacher evaluations are tied to student academic progress–and that, in many cases, will be those very test scores! So will there be a change in how test prep is done? I seriously doubt it–and I bet she doesn’t either.  Let’s say the scores don’t count for three years for the school, but put them on teacher’s backs instead.

Hm.  Doesn’t seem much different to me.

And, to go back to the beginning of this post, I suspect scores being attached to teacher evaluations will affect more people’s sleep!

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 a Difference 2 Years Makes

  1. How in the world can the continued “teaching to the test” continue to be encouraged if not mandated? And how can the outcomes of poorly conceived standardized tests have so much impact on education? We all know the reasons: (1) policy makers see numerical scores that can be sorted and thus used to rank students, schools, teachers, administrators, … (2) since the test scores determine rankings, it makes sense to many that drilling for the test is necessary, often mandated; (3) the rankings are just another piece of “evidence” that students are doing poorly – BUT not because of poor pedagogy or (in a small fraction of cases) because of teacher ineffectiveness but some other favorite culprit such as parental failure; and (4) as a _________ (fill in the blank), I don’t have enough time as it is and you want me to keep up to date on learning research.

    This blog has brought to light concrete examples of teachers doing the right things. I always knew they were but their stories were never out there! It’s similar to the inner city student who does really well in college – “against the odds” in most peoples’ thinking. We don’t often hear about the environment for their learning shaped by parent, family member, community citizen, and/or teacher – BUT they’re out there too!

    It’s time to stop the BS, to stop trying to defend a system that is undefendable, to enable unions to fight against change that is all about control. It’s time for politicians and policy makers to demand improvement BUT then get out of the way and let the communities work toward those milestones. Its

    Posted by John Bennett | April 17, 2012, 10:41 am
    • Oops … it’s (not its) time to end mandates period!

      I have long believed in the power and capabilities of communities (I have called them LOCAL EDUCATION COMMUNITIES) to identify and address local issues. It is, in my opinion at least, only at the local level that real progress can and will be made. Politicians and policy makers need to enable – indeed REQUIRE – such efforts and respond to resource requirement proposals that are carefully justified. And of course outcomes, carefully assessed, need to be documented and published / presented. But not for adoption for sure and not likely for easy adaption even; for further “external” assessment and for resource materials for other Education Communities.

      Because of the pedagogy of learning facts and facing the same in too many classroom assessments and of course in the standardized testing, our educational system is continuing the factory / manual labor approaches of the past (and of course preparation for game shows – though I doubt very much the success of contestants preparing this way). We MUST insisted on EFFECTIVE LEARNING – core knowledge that’s retained AND easily used to address meaningful situations.

      The college students I worked with typically (not routinely, thank goodness) sought answers to the plea: “Tell us what we need to know.” The expectations were that (a) there were a small, definitely finite, number of options for addressing an assignment, (b) the first way thought of to address the assignment was as good as any other, (c) that ALL needed information input to address the assignment was readily available and almost always given, (d) that all assignments had a correct answer, and (e) there is NEVER any reason to review the assignment outcomes to consider their usefulness. Again, thank goodness this does NOT describe all students; sadly however, it does describe too many students. And far too few people perceive that the system is broken, dead, or even flawed …

      Posted by John Bennett | April 17, 2012, 11:38 am
  2. I would also like to see higher education require portfolio assessment and admissions materials from the arts. The use of test scores and grades as shorthand by universities and colleges only furthers the culture of “achievement” at the expense of personally meaningful work that would keep more kids in schools than the SOL and their ilk do.

    I often wonder about how to separate out tests from the “what’s best for our kids” that we teachers and parents want for our children. It’s tough when we face termination because of tests scores and parents and kids perceive that their futures depend most on test scores and grades, and least on the learning that happens and relationships and connections that form each year.

    Patricia Wright baffles me. The state has worked so hard to see itself as an educational “maverick,” but all it does is march to the beat of the vendors. She has perfected testing doublespeak without, perhaps, realizing that we recognize her speech as such.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 17, 2012, 12:48 pm
  3. I am so frustrated by the tests. NY decided to increase the length of the state math and ELA tests by 50%, allegedly so they could field-test questions for the new tests that will align with the Common Core standards (making schools even more factory-like…no product variation anywhere!). I am at the point of arguing for education civil disobedience. Parents should keep their children out of school on testing days. Students who need to go to school because their parents need to work should refuse to take the tests. Teachers should back the students and parents and refuse to grade the tests. Let those who worry about AYP and the rest of that nonsense figure out some other way of getting their precious data.

    Posted by Deven Black | April 17, 2012, 7:34 pm
  4. The more things change, the more they stay the same… with a vengeance.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | April 18, 2012, 6:31 am

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