Where others see numbers, Kevin Hughes sees faces.
Hughes, who used to help write standardized tests for the state of Virginia, looks at the graphs of students' scores on Standards of Learning exams and sees not the children but their teachers. A dip here, a rise there, he says, can almost always be traced to an individual teacher doing something specific in a classroom.
"Every time there's an anomaly in our data -- either way -- when we explore it, the reason always comes to dramatic change in the instruction or curriculum of a single teacher," he told a roomful of educators gathered one day last semester at the Roanoke Holiday Inn.
Their school districts had paid $150 each for them to be there, learning how to be better teachers. Down the hall, one of Hughes's partners, Tom Estes, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, was telling another roomful of teachers how to help weak readers pass the SOL reading test. Answer: Drill them to spend less time reading the long passages on which the test questions are based, more time on the questions themselves.
"Here's a rule," he told his students, all English teachers. "You can't ask me a question about the test that begins with 'why.' I didn't write the test . . . . It's just the way it is."
Consultants such as Hughes and Estes are one aspect of the changing face of in-service training for teachers, something schools have long provided. "We make the comparison to a doctor," said Martha G. Abbott, director of high school instruction for Fairfax County. "If there's a doctor who hasn't had any new training in 15 years, is that the doctor you want to be going to?"
But the SOL exams, administered in the third, fifth and eighth grades and high school, have sharpened the focus of teacher-training, because they hold teachers accountable for students' performance -- and, by extension, for their school's accreditation by the state. Although teachers say they're becoming more comfortable with the tests, first administered in 1998, the pressure remains enormous.
"My husband cannot stand to live with me the week before they take the tests," said Stephanie Persinger, who teaches eighth grade in Alleghany County and traveled to Roanoke for Estes's workshop.
Even in Loudoun County, the largest county in which every school has met accreditation standards, the pressure has grown rather than abated. What if one school misses the mark next time because of one class's scores?
"Ouch, we all say we don't want to be the one," said Mary Alice Hoff, a teacher at Loudoun Valley High School, during a recent teacher-training day in the county.
The SOLs came with $59 million in state funds distributed over four years to help school districts train teachers. Many districts used that money to do much more than simply review the new curriculum. Fairfax and Alexandria, for example, embarked on massive programs to train teachers for the "standards-based classroom."
In those districts, a handful of teachers and administrators were pulled out of each school to be immersed in the profession's "best practices," the latest thinking on how students learn and achieve. In turn, they were to hold seminars for the other teachers.
In Fairfax, Abbott said, the training was intense. The first participants gathered one day a month for a year, and now almost every teacher in the county has been taught what they learned.
Among the best practices was something called "backwards design," in which teachers build lesson plans from back to front, starting with what they want the kids to know by the end of the class and then moving backward to figure out what they should do each day to make sure the students get there.
Although budget cuts have turned off the funding tap that paid for those initial efforts, a new infusion is expected because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which will require every state to develop a statewide curriculum and high-stakes standardized tests, as Virginia has done. In Virginia, starting next year, seniors must have passed a prescribed number of tests to graduate and, starting in 2007, schools' accreditation will depend on test scores.
Where teachers are concerned, that means that almost any seminar or workshop that strengthens their teaching skills will help their students on the SOL exams even if those three letters never come up.
"Bluntly, all our staff development is related in some ways to the SOLs," said Preston Coppels, director of instruction for Loudoun County. "Anything related to good instruction relates to the SOLs."
Estes, the U.-Va. professor who has spent his career studying how children learn to read, distills his SOL advice to English teachers into a simple mantra: "We're not in charge of what [authorities] test. But we are in charge of what we teach."In Roanoke and a half-dozen other Virginia cities last year, Estes told teachers that students who read a lot will always pass the reading tests, and barely literate students will always struggle.His workshops are aimed at helping teachers reach the kids in the middle, the ones who find reading challenging and time-consuming.
He believes that the key is to have them look at the test questions before they wade through the long reading passages on which the questions are based. Middling students may get bogged down in the reading passages, losing focus and confidence, he said. But many of the questions can be answered without reading the passage, and other questions refer directly to the line or paragraph where the answer can be found.
What they really need to understand, he said, are the terms used in the questions: "paragraph," "stanza," "suffix," "prefix."
"For a fifth-grader reading at a third-grade level, they're going to read [an entire passage] and say, 'I don't understand.' Well, guess what? There is no question here that asks you, 'Do you understand?' " he said.
As an example, Estes cited a question that quoted one line from a long passage that used the word "thankfully." Students then had to choose which word uses "-ly" in the same way as it is used in thankfully: silly, lying, quietly or bully. A child who knows how the -ly suffix works could answer that question correctly without reading the passage, he said, and even a child who understood the passage top to bottom could miss it.
Hughes's workshop represents the other end of the process: enabling principals to determine how teaching methods are working for individual students. Data mining, his specialty, helps principals sift through SOL results to see that, for instance, the boys in a certain math class have figured out fractions but not decimals and the girls the opposite. Then they can decide what to do about the weak spots -- how to improve teaching.
His sessions have a certain cachet because he knows the SOL exams from the inside out. Before he began working for the Albemarle school system, he spent six years at the Virginia Department of Education, where he helped write the state curriculum standards and worked to make them clear and concise. He left as the department's associate director for SOL development.
"What I'm advocating is that folks in a school need to analyze data as a measure of their own performance, rather than interpreting data to learn about particular children," he said.
Hughes calls his company Achievement Strategies Inc. -- he handles the instruction, and his wife, billed as the "vice president of stuff," handles logistics such as bookings and lunch.
Persinger, the eighth-grade teacher from Alleghany, said consultants such as Estes and Hughes have tapped an almost inexhaustible need.
"There's a market for books, for the workshops, for motivational speakers. We need everything we can get," she said. "If I had the skills to do this, I'd quit teaching in a heartbeat. This is a market in great demand."