Several prominent Virginia superintendents are pushing the state to give standardized tests months earlier in the school year, a shift they say would reduce the impact of testing on classes and free teachers to offer more meaningful lessons.
The proposal, spearheaded by Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale and leaders of four other large school systems, has drawn intense resistance from state education officials in Richmond.
Dale, who leads the state’s largest school system, and the other superintendents want to end the long-standing practice of administering most of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests in May or June. Instead, they say, the SOL tests could be held in the first semester, with second or third chances offered later for students who fail.
A change in the testing calendar would allow more time to teach “key 21st century skills that are linked to college and career readiness,” the superintendents wrote to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright in April. Dale signed the letter with his peers from Virginia Beach, Roanoke and Henrico and Albemarle counties.
“Our students are bored,” Dale said in an interview this week, “because they’re not doing the hands-on kind of learning that they’re great at.”
Whether the Virginia Board of Education will go along is unclear.
Board members have expressed concern that an accelerated testing schedule wouldn’t allow enough time to get students ready. Wright said the SOL tests are conducive to the kind of enhanced instruction the superintendents advocate, rejecting the argument that the most effective teaching occurs after testing season has finished.
Virginia introduced the SOL exams in 1998, four years before a 2002 federal law mandated increased standardized testing in reading and math. “We were ahead of the curve,” Wright said.
But many teachers and administrators across the country say the focus on achievement tests narrows the educational experience. Schools, they say, are measured by exam pass rates instead of student mastery of knowledge and skills. The proposal by Dale and other local school leaders represents what they call an effort to minimize the effect of standardized tests on curriculum.
An SOL social studies test might ask students when and where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, said Patrick Russo, superintendent of Henrico schools. But he said students would learn more by debating the possible reasons he was killed.
Maryland gives its standardized tests for elementary and middle school students in March and April. The District offers those exams in April.
Testing Virginia students in the first half of the school year would also allow time for teachers to tailor remediation efforts to those who do not pass the exams the first time, Dale and his peers said. Under their plan, such students would be able to retake tests in the spring.
As of now, only high school students can retake SOL tests if they fail them in the spring. For elementary or middle school students, failing the tests does not prevent promotion to the next grade.
Critics of the proposal say they’re not convinced that SOL material can be crammed into a single semester. They say some students could be set up for failure if forced to take the tests earlier.
“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me,” Elizabeth D. Beamer, a state board member, told superintendents last month. “If you move the testing schedule to January, some students haven’t even had the opportunity to learn all of the material yet.”
Some state board members also said they worry that classes will be split between those who pass the test by January and those who do not, essentially forcing a two-track approach to lessons. The local superintendents said they have not yet decided how teachers would handle such a situation.
Wright said the changes could force more schools to be branded as failing to meet academic goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. She said more rigorous SOL exams scheduled to be introduced next year will make earlier testing even more untenable. No Child Left Behind requires states to test students in reading and math every year from third through eighth grade, plus once in high school.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be politically possible to get rid of testing, so the question is, how are we going to make it work in the most productive way possible?” Dale said.
Critics of standardized testing say that a growing number of superintendents are joining their ranks as more schools fail to meet goals for academic progress that states have established to comply with the federal law. In March, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 82 percent of public schools could be at risk of failing to meet such goals this year, up from 37 percent last year.