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Virginia Journal of Education


Mounting Pressure


The importance of SOL test scores has changed the climate in our schools.

 

By Bill Pike

 

Like all educators, my career was filled with ups and downs, successes and failures. But without question, my last nine years as principal of Henrico County’s Lakeside Elementary School are locked in my memory banks forever, for one very simple reason: the introduction of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

Those tests changed my life. Immediately, I felt like an old pressure cooker sitting on top of a hot stove burner, ready to explode. Tums and Rolaids didn’t work anymore. I was thankful for the invention of Prilosec.

We saw that pressure play out recently in a SOL testing scandal at a Richmond elementary school, a school that had been recognized for its testing success at the local, state, and federal levels.

Sadly, we shouldn’t be surprised. In our society, “everyone loves a winner,” and this is especially true at an underperforming school.

I still recall the ratcheting up of pressure in the principal meetings I attended. Led by the superintendent and central office staff, the drumbeat was steady, the message clear at these meetings—pass the tests and earn accreditation at each school.

I will give Henrico credit for the support we received from our subject matter educational specialists. They had done their homework and knew how to help our teachers with instructional techniques linked to the specifics of the Standards of Learning. Additionally, we had access to funding that allowed us to hire instructional tutors who worked with small groups of students. But not every school division can do that.

I was certainly not alone in feeling the pressure created by the SOL testing. Classroom teachers, especially those in grade levels where the tests were administered, couldn’t escape it, either. Their lesson plans were linked to the SOLs, they had to give benchmark testing every grading period, they attended extra department meetings, and they had to coordinate additional instructional opportunities for students. All this wore them down, too.

Our test results were miserable the first year. We did not pass. Lakeside sits in the middle of Henrico County, and we had a diverse student population whose parents covered a wide economic spectrum.

In 1998, as the SOL tests were being implemented, we hired a new fifth-grade math teacher. After our dismal first year of test scores, she felt like she had no choice but to be laser-focused on the SOLs included in the fifth-grade math curriculum, essentially turning her teaching into “drill-and-kill” every day.

She remembers a later principal telling the staff that “one student, missing one question, could determine accreditation for the school,” and has never forgotten the kind of pressure that created for her and her peers.

Even though the pressure was beyond intense the second year, our students passed the tests, earning our accreditation. But that good feeling was brief. Once you earn accreditation, the pressure increases to sustain that success for another year. When a school that doesn’t earn accreditation for consecutive years, parents have the right to choose to send their children to a different school. So, while the school board was appreciative of the success, the pressure did not let up one bit.

Eventually, our fifth-grade math teacher transferred to another elementary school, one where earning accreditation isn’t a yearly struggle. There, the goals are more focused on achieving incremental growth in SOL test scores.

Public educators and their schools are under constant scrutiny, and there are no easy school environments to work in anymore. Layers of pressure exist at every level in our public schools. The pressure to meet accreditation standards will never go away in underperforming schools.

Why is this?

Is it the lack of building-level leadership, inadequate instructional skills, funding limitations, disruptions in the learning environment, over-reliance on technology, substandard facilities, a widening economic gap, insufficient mental health assessments, lack of parental involvement, indifference, or resistance to change?

I don’t recall an “all of the above” bubble on the SOL answer sheet. But I think it’s the correct answer here: this list, and other factors, affect our school personnel and students on a daily basis.

Personally, I think another factor is often overlooked in debates about public schools, one that creates a different layer of pressure—the erosion of families. One indicator that the erosion of our families is being felt in our schools is that some elementary schools now employ a Family Advocate. 

School systems have access to a lot of data. What might we learn from this data about the erosion of our families and the strain it puts on school personnel and the students they are attempting to serve?

Some might read all of this and see it as excuses. I understand that perception. I would counter that with an invitation—follow the required protocols in a school system and offer to volunteer in an underperforming school.

Whether you consider “all of the above” as factors or excuses, one thing is perfectly clear: Breaching SOL testing protocols isn’t acceptable at any level in our schools.

I have never forgotten these words from a fellow educator: “Students take their signals from adults.”

Parents and our communities must be able to trust our educators to send the proper signals to students no matter the school or environment. When children and communities lose trust in public educators, recapturing that trust is an exhausting journey.

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” James Joyce once said.

The SOL pressure cooker wears down educators and affects the students and communities they serve.

Moving forward, we need to be willing to ask —what can we learn from this pressure and from this breach of SOL testing?

Pike, now retired, spent 31 years in education working as a teacher, coach, administrative aide, assistant principal, and principal. He can be reached at wapike1@gmail.com.

 


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