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Understanding the SOLs [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, September-October 2003

WHAT DO THOSE SCORES REALLY MEAN?

Are you worried about the Standards of Learning exams (SOLs)?

“Well, don’t worry,” says Superintendent George Stepp. “But do understand the importance of the SOLS, and help your students prepare and take them seriously.”

Stepp knows that students need to master certain information by the time they graduate from high school.

“These tests simply make sure that all of our students have learned what they need to know, but the fact is that these are minimum standards,” he says. “Our students should not only be mastering this information – but going above and beyond understanding what they are expected to know for the SOLS. “

Of course, Stepp realizes that when the Virginia State Board of Education first adopted the SOLs in the summer of 1995, many people—including teachers and administrators, parents and students—were concerned about the ramifications.

“Educators feared they’d be forced to ‘teach to the test,”’ Stepp continues. “They were worried that having to cover all the information students need to know for the SOLs would undermine their creativity, and make them less effective in the classroom.”

Additionally, he says, being accountable to a statewide test seemed slightly Orwellian to many educators who for decades relished the freedom they had to teach and guide their students as they saw fit.

Still, the new standards—which were developed through a series of public hearings and efforts of more than 5,000 parents, teachers, education officials and representatives of business and industry—were mandatory. It was up to the schools to adapt.

In the last eight years, that is exactly was they have done. The four City Schools are no exception.

THE BRIGHT SIDE

“We’ve had plenty of time to work on incorporating the new standards into the curriculum,” says Joy Hanbury principal of Providence Elementary. “I am happy that we actually have specific guidelines to work from.”
In fact, Hanbury believes the SOLs offer a number of benefits. For example, useful tools such as the curriculum map were born from the idea that by organizing the curriculum into logical, easy-to-follow units, teachers would be better prepared to help their students master the material and easily move on to the next learning level as they progressed from kindergarten to 12th grade.
As for the argument that SOLs force teachers to be less creative, Hanbury points to her second grade teachers. Last year, during a unit on Virginia history that focused on the Woodland Indians, they helped students build and decorate a life-size longhouse. “If that project isn’t a creative use of making the standardized material come to life, I don’t know what is,” Hanbury says.

THE FLIP SIDE

Lanier Middle School Principal Peter Noonan agrees the SOLs are important and useful. But, he says, teaching in a transient community such as the City of Fairfax brings additional challenges.

“SOLs provide a snapshot of how the school is measuring up something I appreciate as an educator,” he says, “However, about 20 percent of the student body [approximately 200 students] that start the school at Lanier in September will move to another school by June.
Similarly, many students will enter Lanier mid-way through the year and will not have been exposed to the entire curriculum they’ll need to master to do well on the SOLS.

“It’s not a level playing field for those kids,” Noonan explains. “To expect that all of our students will be at the same knowledge level isn’t realistic.”

That won’t keep Noonan and his teachers from striving to have all students meet the highest academic standards. in fact, his goal for the 2003-2004 school year is to make sure his middle school students not only pass the SOLs —but also pass them at the advanced level.

He simply wants parents and the community to understand the reality his students and faculty face.

“The problem with having all students aim to accomplish the same academic goals is that not all students have the same advantages,” he says. “When assessing a school as a whole, there are a lot of factors that need to be considered.”

A NEW CHALLENGE

Fairfax High Principal Linda Thomson is also a big believer in the benefits of having a standardized curriculum. “Standards define for teachers what they need to be covering,” Thomson says. “This is essential, for it ensures all kids are exposed to the same body of knowledge.”

This year’s senior class, however, will be facing an added challenge. Graduating students must pass two English SOLs and
four SOLs of their choice or they won’t receive a high school diploma. The pressure is on, Thomson concedes. “Because the students’ performance on one test drives an entire school’s accreditation, there is an intense pressure to do well on these tests.”

STRIVING TO FIND BALANCE

Daniels Run Principal Kathy Mullenix believes all educators value high, uniform educational standards. However, she is concerned that one assessment determines school accreditation.

“Many of our families come from other states and countries and have not been exposed to a similar curriculum,” she says. “Many of these children are also learning English as a second language.”

Additionally, she says, children from kindergarten through third grade [the year the first SOLs are given] often aren’t at the same developmental level. And Mullenix worries that the stress of doing well will be too much for students.

“When I observe some of our younger students experiencing test-taking anxiety
something we usually don’t see until high school – it really concerns me,” she explains. “I believe the job of a school is to teach the objectives of the SOLs in a thorough, creative manner so that each child can succeed. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture. One test taken on one day is not the measure of a child’s knowledge or worth.”

Mullenix says she is proud of the teachers, parents and students at Daniels Run who haven risen to the challenge.

“Most of our students performed very well,” she says. “But we also need to put the SOL scores into perspective and not lose sight that our students are children with many needs – educational, social and emotional. We need to remember that learning is a lifelong process, and we need to maintain a balanced perspective.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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