SOLs Miss the Mark

Matt Chwalowski missed the point in his letter "The Value of SOL Testing" (Dec. 19). Those of us opposed to the Standards of Learning tests as they stand are not opposed to higher standards and accountability for all schools. He states that "whether 10 percent or 50 percent of students pass SOLs is not relevant; it is important how they compared with others."

The fact is that it does matter how a student does. A high school student must pass six SOL tests for a standard diploma and nine for an advanced, regardless of the student's grade or performance in that subject area. Many will not know if they will graduate until May or June of their senior year. Those who begin to fail in the first few years will drop out, knowing a diploma is not within reach. Those who fail will have to choose between repeating the course, summer school and after-school and weekend remediation.

Loudoun County is above the state average, and yet the results are alarming. At the high school level, as reported by the Virginia Board of Education, in 1999, 82.74 percent passed in English, 66.76 percent passed in math, 44.22 percent in history and 69.34 percent in science. It is clear that average and above-average students are failing these tests. It is neither the fault of the teachers nor the school system but of the testing itself. Teachers in Loudoun have been doing a wonderful job in trying to address the SOL standards.

The current mandate has grasped centralized control of the precise content, depth and timing of our children's curriculum and assessment of their achievement. As stated by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing: "Large-scale testing programs are not useful in improving a student's immediate learning process. As diagnostic tools, most large-scale tests are blunt, imprecise and often useless. Because most state tests do not provide any opportunity for sustained and engaged thinking, they are poor tools for shaping or improving curriculum and instruction, a goal most states claim for their tests." Virginia has one of the most stringent, high-stakes testing standards in the country.

The test cannot measure one school against another. Each school population is different, and these standards disproportionately hurt children already at risk because of socioeconomic factors, limited English proficiency and disabilities, all of which strongly correlate to test scores. A school may pass the cut score one year and not the next because the population taking the test has changed.

These tests hurt the children they are supposed to be helping. Is it not my child's right to receive a diploma if he has done the best job possible? I challenge all parents to go into their children's classrooms and find out what is going on firsthand. I have found that an inordinate amount of time and money are being spent preparing for these tests. Talk to the teachers and administrators, become informed and get involved.

All concerned must contact their legislators and the Virginia School Board. They are taking public comment until Jan. 21. Do it for your child and mine.



String Program Needed

A comparison has been made between the school budgets of Loudoun and Douglas, Colo., two of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. Despite the Loudoun School Board's assertion of some unfavorable effects of the Douglas schools' lower construction budget, Douglas supports a large and essential program that has never existed in Loudoun: a full string program, grades 5-12.

As a violinist and teacher for 15 years here, I have heard many express dismay at the absence of strings in Loudoun's schools. Though scores of children do study violin and the other stringed instruments, many young players forgo them upon reaching middle school because they naturally want a group music experience.

What can public schools offer? As a child in an Oregon mill town I had my choice of a very strong chorus, band and orchestra program, grades 4-12. Our 75-strong junior high string orchestra was exciting and a social nexus as well. We played Bach fugues, Vivaldi concerti, Barber's "Adagio for Strings," etc. These string "classics" were fun and not so hard to play! Even the stragglers could absorb something of this special, very beautiful music.

This outstanding classical music--the heritage of all--is the real reason for having a string program. This music (most of it classical) stands equally with science and great literature and art as an essential element of a public school education. Underlying 90 percent of this written music of the last 500-plus years is the string family of instruments. Most of the music, sometimes complex, is a wonderful, non-commercialized exercise in creativity and arouses positive emotions associated with such creation and much additional meaning besides.

Very little of this music is accessible to the school musician unless he or she is part of a string ensemble. Should not our students be able to re-create this music via the string orchestra, string quartet and symphony?

It was Einstein who said of one of his discoveries: "It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. The discovery was the result of musical intuition."

If the connection between classical music, scientific thought and cognitive maturation--the "Mozart effect," etc.--be so obvious, why then should strings be left out? Boys and young men especially need this entry into the art/science unity that is classical music.

By implication, a string program will benefit the morale--sensitivity, constructiveness, discipline--of all students exposed to it as participants, friends of participants or as listeners.

For certain of our children--the quiet ones or those with a speech or even a vision impairment--an instrument of the string family might be just what is missing for them to blossom in terms of self-expression.

For all such reasons, and since the voters of Loudoun have shown over and over again their support for necessary school funding, let the School Board propose a full string program and let the Board of Supervisors be advised of the need for it and the public's support for it. If it must start as an after-school program, let older students, the home-schooled and private-school children be involved also.



Applause for Free Clinic

There is a small group of people working behind the scenes to provide medical services to the low-income uninsured residents of Loudoun County. These are the volunteers of the Catoctin Free Clinic. There are almost one million people in the state of Virginia without health insurance. The uninsured of Loudoun are going over to the Shenandoah Square building every Thursday night and are being seen by local volunteer physicians Greg Bentz, Chris Chiantella, Peter Chopivsky and John Koh, along with other volunteers, including local pharmacist Carl Emswiller, nurses, lab technicians and eligibility screeners. When there are so many negative aspects of the health-care industry being reported weekly, I feel that this group of people and their efforts should be applauded. This is a private, nonprofit organization supported by cash donations and in-kind contributions from the private sector. Everyone working at the clinic is a volunteer giving tirelessly of their time and touching lives in a positive way. They believe that the inability to pay should not prevent people from receiving quality health care. This is a special place with special people serving patients caught up in difficult and sometimes unfair situations. I would like to express my thanks and appreciation for all of the hard work from all of the volunteers for making this project a reality.