Every year around this time, school administrators across Virginia nervously await results from the previous spring’s Standards of Learning (SOL) exams.
That anxiety is probably justified. When schools fail to hit benchmarks under rules mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, fingers start pointing, principals start looking over their shoulders and federal education dollars start drying up. Students are tested in English, math, science and history. If the school fails to get the required percentage of students passing in a year in any one category, it is placed on “accredited with warning” status. If that happens four years in a row accreditation is denied.
Nowhere is the pressure to pass these tests greater than in Fairfax County, where high academic expectations, vocal parents and a highly diverse student population are testing the patience — and skills — of school officials.
For the most part, Fairfax schools have met expectations on the SOL front. Although school-wide test results from the 2013-14 academic year won’t be made official until later this month, recent history tells us 2014 will look much like 2013, which looked a lot like 2012, which … well, you get the picture. In other words, count on anywhere from 10 to 15 of Fairfax County’s 188 schools to get placed on “accredited with warning” status. That translates to low pass rates on math, science, history and English tests. Schools must achieve certain benchmarks in all subgroups, including low-income students, those who have a disability or speak a language other than English at home.
While we understand the need for academic accountability, the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind isn’t practical or realistic.
After watching the process closely for the better part of a decade, several things are clear.
For starters, too much time is still spent “teaching to the test.” During the last quarter of the academic year, virtually every elementary and middle school teacher in Virginia is focused solely on preparing students for SOL exams. As a result, students who know the material become bored and frustrated while those who don’t are under a tremendous amount of pressure to improve. A school’s reputation and funding probably shouldn’t be riding on an 8-year-old third-grader who moved to Herndon from Honduras a year or two earlier.
It’s no coincidence that the 10 or 12 Fairfax schools that have struggled most with the SOLs also happen to lead the county in both Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students and children who receive a free or reduced lunch. Penalizing individual schools for the communities they sit in is about as fair as penalizing Minnesota residents for using more heating oil in February than their Georgia counterparts.
If student improvement is truly the goal, let’s put everyone on a level playing field.
No Child Left Behind was put in place to hold schools and educators accountable for the billions of taxpayer dollars they spend each year. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, it highlighted how poorly many students were doing in school. At the time, NCLB’s central purpose was to identify failing school districts who were routinely graduating students who couldn’t add 2 and 2 or read a comic book. While those initial goals were noble, we aren’t convinced that a rigid, pressure-packed series of exams each May is the best way to go about improving our educational system.
Instead, let’s give teachers the tools they need to succeed, monitor their ability to engage, motivate and develop students and, after a reasonable period of time, make some decisions. If they’re good, pay top dollar to keep them. If they’re not, encourage them to find another line of work.
Principals and other high-level school administrators should be held to the same standard.
Long before terms like SOL and NCLB came on the scene, just about anyone who stepped inside a school or classroom in Fairfax County could tell you who was leading and who was following. We can learn a lot about a high school by the number of students doing AP or IB coursework. If that number drops precipitously over a three- to five-year period, a red flag should go up. In middle school, the measuring stick might be the number of seventh-graders taking Spanish 1 or Algebra.
There is positive movement on at least one front. In April, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill to eliminate five tests for elementary and middle school students. Instead, they’ll complete project-based assessments, a move many educators have been pushing for years.
Hopefully, educators continue to assess our standardized testing practices and make changes that truly benefit our students. After all, there are better ways to address accountability than by implementing Draconian policy from the federal government.