Racking Up The Big Numbers

This morning I tweeted in frustration about the numbers of online state standardized tests we give here in the overly-large school district.

Screen Shot 2012 05 30 at 1 30 08 PM

That comes from the daily report the testing managers in IT sent us today (and every school day this time of year), along with the fact that we had completed more than 220,000 online tests so far in this testing season.

The really depressing part of those statistics is that we have “only” 180,000 students in K12 and some of them don’t take the SOLs*. Or still take paper and pencil versions of the tests.

Now just imagine all the practice and non-SOL multiple choice tests taken during the rest of the school year.


* SOL = Standards of Learning, Virginia’s infamously named state-wide standardized tests.

Breaking the Testing Addiction

It’s testing season here in the overly-large school district as both the tech (the state says we have to give all tests online) and the kids are being prepped for their high stakes exercises in minimal learning. For the next six weeks or so, don’t expect to find much instruction happening in most of our classrooms. It’s all about passing the SOLs.*

However, lately I’ve been stumbling across a string of articles talking about a “testing backlash”, both by school districts and individual parents, about states being granted waivers from the stifling perfection demands of NCLB, and how we’re moving into a “post testing” period of American education.

It would be nice if all of that was actually happening, but I wonder if schools, districts, administrators and many teachers are going to be able to give up the testing culture they’ve become so accustomed to over the past decade or more. Is the allure of data – concrete, easily collected, quantifiable numbers – too much to abandon?

Let’s face it, in many ways following the test prep script is much easier than pacing instruction based on the kids who arrive in your class each day. Test scores go into nice neat tables and averages of them fit better into newspaper headlines and two-minute news stories than other, more accurate forms of assessment.

Part of my doubt also stems from the amount of time, money, and focus our district has poured into a “curriculum assessment resource tool”, essentially a big database of questions forming a year-round standardized test prep system. With this in place, most of our schools have been taking away many additional days of instructional time during the rest of the year for collecting more of that data.

So, I come back to the question of whether, if NCLB disappeared tomorrow and teachers were allowed more flexibility in their assessment, schools could break the addiction of the testing culture. I’m sure the best teachers would have no problem, and probably already find ways around the testing drills mandated by many principals.

Just some rambling, speculative questions, maybe ones that are too pessimistic.

*Virginia’s standardized tests are called the Standards of Learning tests. No, the irony of the acronym is not lost on any of us.

Update: One more parent opting their child out of standardized testing.

Change Doesn’t Mean Progress

Our state education department has decided that all students in Virginia will take their SOL tests* online, and, of course, they haven’t bothered to actually pay for the equipment needed to do that.

In a recent discussion thread about the expansion of those online tests in our elementary schools, the writer of one post compared the mindset change required by teachers in moving from paper and pencil tests to online tests, to that required when shifting from overhead projectors to Smartboards.

It’s a accurate comparison, although in both cases, change doesn’t mean progress.

When it comes to the SOLs, a test, is a test, is a test and it really doesn’t matter the media used to administer it. Students are still filling it the blanks and learning little or nothing in the process.

Except that when students take their exams online, it also means schools will be committing every computer they can find to weeks of functioning as a dumb terminal rather than as powerful tools for communications and creativity. Plus the time required for setup and practice sessions.

Overall the push to have students take their SOLs online only benefits the state since results can be obtained faster and it will be cheaper (for them, not the local schools) to administer in the long run.

For students, it’s a net loss.

The change from overhead to interactive whiteboards (IWB, most schools in our district buy the Smart brand) is a little more complicated but also represents a net loss.

Overhead projectors are designed for classroom lecture/demo presentations and, for the most part, were used exclusively by teachers. Sometimes students would be the presenters but that was not common.

IWBs, used with a data projector, are little more than a high tech, expensive, replacement for the overhead projector.

Except that these devices cost far more than the previous versions, money that could have been better spent to put technology in the hands of students, and like overhead projectors, reinforce a traditional teacher-centered approach to instruction.

So, there actually is a connection between students taking their standardized tests online and IWBs.

Both represent bad instructional practice and suck up resources that could be better applied to actually improving student learning.

And both represent change that does nothing to improve education.

*The common acronym for our Standards of Learning exams.

Deferred Learning

I was talking to an elementary teacher this week about ways she might be able to use Google Earth in her instruction.


With her interactive whiteboard, LitTrips, for studying history, exploring other cultures.

She told me that it all sounded wonderful, something her students would really respond to and enjoy using.

And then… “Maybe we can plan to do something with Google Earth after the SOLs.”*


Wouldn’t it be nice if everything we did in schools was that after-the-SOLs kind of learning?

* SOL = Standards of Learning, the shorthand name for Virginia’s spring collection of standardized tests. What did you think it meant? :-)