Magazine article The American Prospect

The Weakly Standards: One Teacher's Losing Fight with High-Stakes, Low-Logic Testing

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Weakly Standards: One Teacher's Losing Fight with High-Stakes, Low-Logic Testing

Article excerpt

WHEN STANDARDS OF LEARNING (SOLS) FIRST APPEARED in my Northern Virginia public school classroom nearly seven years ago, they were hardly more than a lunch-table punch line--another unfortunate abbreviation coined by board-of-education bureaucrats to browbeat our low-achieving, high-minority school. SOLs constituted a body of knowledge that students would learn in each academic subject. The initials became the sobriquet for both the curriculum and a test that, after a phase-in period of six years, kids would have to pass in core subjects by 2003 in order to graduate. Sometime after that, the state promised, schools' accreditations would be at stake.

Along with 97 percent of those tested in Virginia, our school failed that first year. The old guard didn't panic: SOLs, too, shall pass, they assured us, just like the "open" classrooms of the 1970s and--I raised my eyebrows here--multiculturalism.

Turns out, SOLs didn't go away. What started as a solution to improve schools became the basis for a long-running educational Red Scare. Virginia's get-tough test reflected a national trend toward standards spawned by the sky-is-falling 1983 report "A Nation at Risk." Today, SOLs are being used to satisfy that report's successor, the No Child Left Behind policy of George W. Bush.

I began teaching in one of these perennially low-scoring schools in 1993, three years before SOLs. I taught learning-disabled kids, then English as a second language (ESL), then "regular" classes and eventually in an International Baccalaureate program. I can trace my evolution--from a creative young teacher to one straight jacketed by SOLs--through the strata of marbled composition books stacked in my shed. The first notebook records my efforts with learning-disabled kids who weren't much for reading the history of American westward expansion. Crude sketches bring back the eureka moment when we went outside to the baseball infield, tacked chicken wire on plywood and piled on some sod, making pretty good replicas of 19th-century prairie dwellings. Presto. My nonreaders were transported somewhere their history books could never take them.

In spring 1995, I was teaching ninth-grade ESL students to write business letters. Instead of "Dear Sir or Madam" practice letters, we wrote to embassies asking for flags that represented our class' diversity. Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia were the first to oblige. The apex came at an end-of-year assembly, at which 58 flags, each born by a native, were marched into the field house to the strains of a xylophone and the student body's enthusiastic applause. …

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