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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point


Struggling With Helping Those Who Struggle

By Timothy J. Hickey

SOL Remediation. Just typing those words causes a knot in my stomach. At the same time, they make me immensely proud to be part of the teaching profession.

When students fail an SOL at my high school and many others across Virginia, we provide remediation before their next attempt. As Math Department chair, I’m at the center of this remediation, both organizing it and doing it. On one hand, providing SOL Remediation to struggling students brings out the best in us. Educators in public schools accept the enormous responsibility of looking after all children who walk through our doors. Working tirelessly to do this is what makes public educators, in my view, highly esteemed professionals. 

SOL Remediation is a key part of this responsibility, given the world we live in. So I value it for that reason. On the other hand, the actual instruction in SOL Remediation is, through no fault of the teacher, inevitably terrible. Its sole objective is to get students to pass the state test. Depending on the SOL, this means answering roughly 50 to 60 percent of the questions correctly. Every other purpose of education—instilling a love of learning, imparting critical thinking skills, preparing students to flourish beyond high school—is expressly discarded in favor of teaching kids to pass a test. It’s enough to make any teacher depressed. And so as I organize SOL Remediation, I feel a deep sense of ambivalence. Hope and despair. Pride and shame. Joy and sadness.

Let me return to remediation’s positive aspects. Each time we do it, I witness intense collaboration among the adults in our building to surround and uplift struggling students. Teachers work hard preparing for and teaching these sessions. Diligent administrators track down students who need the help. Indeed, students who fail an SOL are often the most difficult to get a handle on: They’re frequently suspended or absent, their home lives are turbulent, they may have substance abuse issues, or they may simply not like school very much. Whatever the case, getting them to actually show up for the remediation is a major challenge. We’re fortunate to have an SOL Coordinator who tracks the SOL scores in our school and shares data with teachers. It’s inspiring to see this collaboration and I’ve seen all this work pay off. Students take note of the vast amount of attention being paid to them and, in my experience, are generally quite grateful for it. They see educators embracing them in an effort to help them graduate. So, helping to organize and teach SOL Remediation makes me proud on many levels.
But it’s difficult for me to get past the atrocious instruction we necessarily have to provide in these sessions. Consider the Algebra I SOL. The level of rigor in the questions was ratcheted up in 2009, but a review of any released test reveals that test-taking tricks can still be used to answer many of them.  For example, a question could provide an absolute value of an expression with a variable and ask the student to evaluate that expression for a given value of the variable. In an SOL Remediation session, I wonder how many teachers would guide students into a thorough inquiry of absolute value. For that matter, I wonder how many teachers in this situation would even review how to evaluate the expression without a calculator. If the goal is get the student to pass the test and the teacher has a limited amount of time to achieve that, then does it not make sense to show the student the absolute value button on their calculator and spend time reviewing something else? I do believe tests based on the 2009 Algebra I standards have fewer questions easily be answered with shortcuts. Nevertheless, the shortcuts need to be a major part of any remediation. In my view, this represents the ugliest side of teaching and learning. Moreover, the message sent to students is that math is not important for its innate value. No matter that we live in a mathematical construct called the universe that is worth understanding. Or that problem-solving and analytical skills can be applied to other situations in their lives.  Just pass the test, get a diploma and move on. The statement made to kids in SOL Remediation sessions about the value of their education is tragic.

A thorough analysis of accountability is not my intent here. I mean only to describe a deep ambivalence I experience as an educator several times of year when we focus our collective attention on students who struggle most, but at the same time cheapen our instruction and the values underlying it.  As with many aspects of teaching, I am torn emotionally. Hope and despair. Pride and shame. Joy and sadness.

Hickey, a member of the Albemarle Education Association, teaches at Monticello High School.


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