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A new school year is beginning, and from day one teachers, parents, and students will start preparing for and worrying about SOL tests. Teachers will sit in endless meetings struggling with new strategies to improve scores in order to “raise the bar” or to “close the gap” so the State will quit breathing down their necks. Parents will complain among themselves about how SOL tests force teachers to “teach to the test.” And kids, who ought to be inspired by school, will too often be bored out of their gourds by lessons designed to cram as many test-specific facts into their heads as is possible before SOLs roll around in spring.

In 2000, the first year that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test was administered – the test that is used to rank and compare national education systems – the U.S. ranked 20th in the world in math, 15th in science, and 16th in reading. As of the last released results of the test from 2012, we ranked 36th in the world in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading – major drops across the board. Many other countries do very little standardized testing, yet consistently outperform us. If all the standardized testing that we’ve been subjecting our students to over the past many years has done anything to improve achievement in math, science, and reading, then why do our kids perform so much more poorly now than they did 14 years ago? The simple, inescapable answer is that standardized testing, like Virginia’s SOL tests, does nothing to improve student performance. “So what?” one might say… “If these tests don’t improve performance, at least they don’t do any harm, right?” WRONG!

Our obsession with standardized testing has tragically diverted our focus and attention from what education is all about. SOL tests drive the instructional train. Teachers are indeed forced to “teach to the test” – focusing on that which is expected to appear on the SOL test to the exclusion of what’s really important – teaching kids to think. We keep repeating the mantra that kids need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, and that we need to encourage them to “think outside the box” – all the while forcing them to stay inside the box by hemming them in with standardized testing. Kids are born outside the box. They’re naturally curious about the world around them, and when properly motivated and guided in the right direction and given the freedom to explore the world they’re natural problem solvers. But our focus on standardized testing emphasizes memorizing facts and marginalizes imagination and creativity. Our focus on testing forces educators to spend all their time teaching kids the dots without teaching them how to connect the dots.

While the original motivation behind No Child Left Behind was laudable, the vehicle that we’ve been using to reform education – standardized testing – is the wrong tool. It’s time to face the hard reality that No Child Left Behind has not done what it was intended to do, and that standardized tests like Virginia’s SOL tests are doing more harm than good. We’d be much better served if we paid teachers more, so school systems could be selective in hiring only the best educators, by only promoting kids to the next higher grade if they can read at grade level, and by holding the line on discipline so that teachers spend more time on teaching and less on classroom management.

Kids hate the SOLs. Parents hate the SOLs. Teachers hate the SOLs. And SOL tests have done nothing to improve student performance. So why do we still administer them? It’s time to jump off the testing band wagon and start teaching students what they really need to know in the way that they really ought to be taught. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a generation of kids who have lots of experience at taking tests, but not much else.

Mark Daugherty, Fairfax

The writer teaches eighth-grade science at Stone Middle School in Centreville.