The Virginia Senate has approved a bill that would require that third graders take the Standards of Learning exams only in math and English, meaning they would no longer have to to take history and science SOLs.

Is that a good idea or a bad one?

The bill, SB 185, would scale back the standardized testing regime for third graders in order to allow them to have more concentrated time learning to read and do math. It awaits a vote in the House.

The idea to cut back on required SOLs in third grade comes from a study that was commissioned last year by the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. John Miller (D-Newport News), which found, among other things, that the state had not reached its goal of a 95 percent pass rate for third graders on the reading SOL.

The concern among critics is that teachers will minimize the teaching of history and science, or stop it altogether, because it is not being tested in a high-stakes way.

It is important to note that this bill is being considered at a time when Virginia is moving to a teacher assessment system that requires that student test scores be a big part of a teacher’s own evaluation and pay.

Is it likely that some teachers will lessen their emphasis on history and science when they know their evaluation depends on reading and math scores? Yes.

This is hardly a new effect of high-stakes tests; the narrowing of the curriculum has been a hallmark of the test-centric No Child Left Behind era.

In Texas, a principal was placed on leave last year when it was discovered that her school received “exemplary” status for its test scores even though third graders had lessons only in reading and math and that teachers had made up grades for each student in social studies, science, music and other subjects.

The answer is not to have high-stakes exams in all subjects; it is, rather, to have no high-stakes tests. There are other, better ways to assess what students know and that allow for a well-rounded curriculum in subjects beyond reading and math.

Of course students in Virginia — and everywhere, for that matter — should be learning science and history right along with math and reading.

To say that our schools need to have a high-stakes test to ensure that they are taught just shows how perverted things have become in the high-stakes testing era.


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