By Rachel Levy
It’s legislating season here in Virginia. One bill by state Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) would remove the Science and Social Studies SOL (Standards of Learning) tests from third grade, not because there are too many tests and not because Senator Miller thinks science and social studies shouldn’t be taught, but so that teachers can spend even more time preparing students for the Reading and Math SOL tests, the Reading Test in particular. Here’s the rationale:
“Miller told the subcommittee that the JLARC study showed that 95 percent of third graders who pass the reading proficiency test will pass the reading SOL in fifth grade, while those who fail have a “50 – 50 chance” of failing the fifth grade test, and ultimately failing in school.”
I read this right after writing a post for the Virginia Education Report explaining how we might advance literacy in Virginia, as our Governor says he wants to do. My second suggestion was:
We need to spend much less time teaching reading as a subject and teaching reading strategies beyond their utility and much more time teaching content or subject matters, such as literature, science, social studies, p.e., art music, foreign languages, technical education, etc. Yes, most kids need to be explicitly taught to decode and yes, to a point reading strategies are useful. Of course, content should be taught as reading and writing intensive. However, literacy is largely representative of someone’s background and content knowledge, and knowledge of vocabulary and does not develop or improve without it. As the University of Virginia’s own Dan Willingham says, teaching content is teaching reading. (It’s also much, much more meaningful and interesting for kids.) My regular readers know that I talk about this ad nauseum. In case you’re new to my writing on education, here are some posts that elaborate further: here, here, and here.
So, first of all, yes, we’ve all made that point on this blog a thousand times.
I can tell you as the parent of two public school third graders that plenty of time is already spent preparing for the Reading SOL. I can tell you as a former Virginia public school social studies teacher that the History SOLs seem to be relatively heavy on minutiae and relatively light on essential knowledge and broader concepts. I’ve always been reassured, though, that unlike many other states, at least Virginia has SOLs for numerous subjects and not just for math and reading. Now, whether any of those tests (all multiple choice except for the writing test) are of good quality is another question. Whether the SOL curriculum is of good quality is yet another one. Neither seems necessarily so given what Chris Dovi reports here about what happens to many Virginia public high school graduates who are successful at mastering the Standards of Learning but not very successful once they get to college.
To be clear, while I am pro-assessment and all for data-informed instruction, I am not currently in favor of many aspects of NCLB or high-stakes standardized testing. Even so, I am somewhat sympathetic to the stance taken, by Andrew Rotherham here in this column about cheating scandals:
“We know from research — as well as experience and common sense — that the best way to help students perform well on standardized tests is not to drill them (and certainly not to cheat) but rather to actually teach them. . . . Real teaching is like a well-rounded breakfast: it sustains you. Drilling for a test is like eating a doughnut: it works for a bit, but you’re hungry again before long. After all, what most assessments are testing is the ability of students to encounter and master material that is unfamiliar in its specifics but similar to what they’ve been taught. So the takeaway for parents is straightforward: with good teaching, the tests take care of themselves. When teachers or schools obsess over tests, parents should be concerned — not about the test, but about the school.”
I say “somewhat” because when Rotherham says that, “with good teaching, tests take care of themselves,” he leaves out (or blithely assumes) good curriculum. This comes across as, it doesn’t matter what’s being taught as long as the teaching is good. In that case, it doesn’t matter if you serve doughnuts every day for breakfast so long as the cooking is good; with good cooking, a good report from the doctor’s office takes care of itself. Otherwise, yes, with good teaching and solid curriculum (and an environment where teachers are free to engage in good practice and to teach knowledge-based curriculum), the tests should theoretically take care of themselves.
The idea that testing isn’t the problem, though, lets policy makers off the hook. Educational malpractice cannot solely be laid at the feet of bad teachers or bad teaching. Senator Miller’s bill is case in point that practice and curriculum are influenced by policy. This bill essentially dictates bad practice. This well-meaning legislator in Virginia said expressly that he was legislating to the “test,” passing a bill that is meant to mandate that teachers spend more time preparing for a reading test, the stated goal being to get those reading scores up. The stated rationale is not: it’s better educational practice (it’s not); it will make for better education (it won’t); or, explicit preparation for standardized reading tests make students better readers (it doesn’t); rather, it’s getting pass rates up.
If we want teachers to stop teaching to ill-conceived tests then lawmakers are going to have to stop legislating to those tests, lobbyists are going to have to stop lobbying to the tests, and reporters are going to have to stop reporting to the tests. While I think good policy can create the conditions to spur meaningful education reforms, I have serious doubts that we can directly legislate better teaching and more meaningful, knowledge-based learning. If the powers that be are going to try anyway, may they at least legislate sound practice and a broad and rich curriculum, and not more vapid reading test prep.
UPDATE: The bill has been passed 33-7 in the Senate (and, by the way, was supported widely by groups representing Virginia educators). Senator Miller said,“I believe it makes common sense to concentrate on reading and math, and give a good basic foundation in those two core subjects for our students.”
Unfortunately, this is what is accepted as common sense in education today, but it’s far from common sense. People learn to read and there are some reading strategies that can be of great use, but people do not learn reading; it’s not a subject. By assuming and then legislating as if it is, we undermine our students’ acquisition of knowledge and their literacy development. I understand that many Virginians want fewer SOL tests and I don’t blame them, but all this bill will likely do is replace subject matter instruction with more reading instruction, and make it so that Virginia’s kids struggle with literacy more. Without background knowledge, exposure to vocabulary, and instruction in content, literacy does not develop.
Rachel Levy is a writer and a former (and likely future) ESOL and Social Studies teacher who lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She blogs about education at All Things Education.