SOLS need new approach for testing elementary school students

Published 2:53 pm Saturday, July 18, 2015

Slowly but surely, the Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Learning tests are ruining our school systems, particularly elementary schools.

Testing season begins the second week of May and runs until the first week of June. To walk into a public elementary school during testing season is to observe tightly controlled chaos. Kindergarteners, first graders and second graders walk through the halls tightlipped; a flurry of shushes surrounding them when they make the slightest noise.

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders spend all day locked in classrooms, remediating a year’s worth of material in social studies, science, math, reading and writing. Then, on the assigned date, they are strapped to a computer to complete a 60- to 70-question test that is used as an evaluative tool on the teachers, principal and the school system as a whole. It’s also is a factor in the amount of state funding an individual school receives every year.

This is a lot of stress to put on a 9-year-old.

When I was in elementary school, the tests were only 40-50 questions and they took my classmates and I anywhere from 45 minutes to nearly six hours. Today, the science and math SOLs can be as long as 70 questions and there are many instances of an entire school being held well after the final bell until the final student is done testing. Once my classmates and I stayed in school until 4:10 p.m., almost a full hour after we were supposed to be released.

Now that I’m older, I appreciate the need for standardized testing: We need to ensure that all children receive the same quality education by establishing a common curriculum throughout the state. But can we expect third graders to have the attention span to sit through these behemoth tests?

Of course, middle school and high school-aged students are mature enough to be able to take a long exam, and in fact they should be in order to prepare for college.

But 9-, 10-, and 11-year-old students can hardly be expected to grasp the significance of the tests they are taking.

I can think of plenty students who feigned illness and threw temper tantrums in order to avoid having to take the test.

The real problem is that every marking period, students take slightly smaller tests, called benchmarks, used by principals, superintendents and the Virginia Department of Education to insure that students are on track to pass SOLs and that they are progressing through the years’ curriculum at a satisfactory pace.

I propose that the VDOE consider implementing a new testing system. Replace the mammoth end of year tests with smaller tests, similar to the benchmarks already in place, that are taken at the end of each nine-week-long marking period.

Breaking the large test into fourths allows a much more manageable review period for the students, and will decrease the stress level placed on each test — if a child shows improvement from one marking period to another, isn’t that a much better measure of a teacher’s effectiveness than a passing rate on one test that students either dread entirely or don’t realize its importance?

Testing elementary school students four times a year with a smaller test would allow the VDOE to continue its necessary standardization and evaluative practices, while lessening the stress placed on both students and teachers and improving the efficacy of the SOL itself in measuring student improvement and teacher effectiveness.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at