Pressure To Pass Tests Permeates Va. Classrooms

By Jessica Portner — December 06, 2000 9 min read
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Deborah Grumbacher is whipping through the highlights of the Reformation in her world history class faster than her 9th graders can destroy enemy attackers in Mortal Combat.

The Courtland High School teacher says she would prefer to linger a bit on the complexities of the 16th-century religious movement, a pivotal development that has captivated historians for centuries. But she says she just hasn’t got the time.

“I have to cover 1,000 years of history in 150 days,” a breathless Ms. Grumbacher said after gliding through the Crusades in a matter of minutes. “Sometimes, you have to cut out depth in order to get breadth.”

Teachers here in Spotsylvania County and all across Virginia say school feels like one big test-prep course: Everyone is cramming.

They have had to squeeze more material into less time ever since Virginia launched a new testing program three years ago that carries serious consequences for students and schools alike. Based on the state’s fact-packed Standards of Learning, the exams have teachers like Ms. Grumbacher talking at warp speed, canceling field trips, and cutting out creative projects.

“I believe in the tests,” Ms. Grumbacher said after class one recent school day, “just not ones that determine everything.”

With more states putting in place high-stakes testing systems, Ms. Grumbacher’s lament is shared by teachers and principals across the country. As they struggle to hoist students over the higher bar set by new standards-based exams, educators nationwide are being forced to rethink almost everything they do both inside and outside the classroom.

In Virginia, education leaders are trying to make the transition easier by doling out grants for teacher-training sessions and by distributing detailed curriculum guides and materials. Last week, the state board of education also approved a measure that could make it possible for districts to administer tests several weeks later in the school year.

But some Virginia legislators, concerned that thousands of students will be denied their diplomas, proposed legislation last month that would dramatically alter the graduation requirements, something state education officials vehemently oppose.

Ms. Grumbacher’s 9th graders, members of the class of 2004, are among the first students who will need to pass the SOL tests to graduate from high school.

By 2007, 70 percent of students in a given Virginia public school will have to pass the battery of exams in grades 3, 5, and 8 and in high school for the school to earn state accreditation.

So far, only 22 percent of Virginia’s schools have achieved passing rates on all the statewide tests required for accreditation. Courtland High, which is among the 78 percent yet to earn accreditation, has an official status that reads like a report card: “needs improvement.”

Feeling the Heat

Most of Courtland High’s 1,150 students come from middle-class families; many of their parents commute to work at government jobs in the Washington suburbs. Others farm the local fields or work at the local Wal-Mart.

Spotsylvania County, with 18,000 students, is like an average runner in the middle of the pack of a long race. And school leaders here know they need to pick up speed if they are going to reach the finish line. Like most 12th graders in Virginia, if Courtland seniors took the SOL tests today, many would be denied their caps and gowns.

However distant graduation day may be for many of them, some Courtland High students already seem confident that they would sail through the gauntlet of exams without a hitch.

“We are good to go,” said Eddie Griffith, a 14-year-old freshman. But many of Eddie’s classmates shuffling out of world history class on a recent weekday didn’t sound so convinced.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to graduate,” said Linda O’Connor, lugging a heavy pile of textbooks in the hall. “I’m just hoping I can get through this,” the 14-year-old said with a shrug.

Freshman Kristy Brown said the piles of homework she is assigned are curtailing her social life. “Teachers want us to study, study, study, and we don’t have time to do anything fun,” Ms. Brown said.

“It’s been forever since I’ve seen a movie,” Ms. O’Connor said.

Though it may cut into socializing, says Mike Bedwell, Courtland’s principal, revving up expectations for students is ultimately good for schools.

He believes the SOL tests have forced principals and teachers to focus more on achievement and map out their goals for the year in a more organized fashion. Coordination has improved between teachers in different disciplines who are trying to reinforce concepts for students that might be on the tests, he said. Mathematics teachers can help vocational teachers with angles and measurements, for example.

“While I disagree on some of the fine points, it’s important to have standards and improve education,” Mr. Bedwell said.

Beating the Clock

Two days after the Nov. 7 presidential election failed to produce a definitive winner, Scott Miller was bounding around his red-white-and-blue-painted classroom festooned with American flags. As he lectured, the ebullient U.S. history teacher delighted in the opportunity to put the extraordinary election battle into historical context for his upperclassmen.

But he regretted that he could devote only a day to the topic because he had to get through most of the Civil War by Christmas. Only 45 percent of Courtland’s students have passed the U.S. history test, which is known around the country for putting a heavy emphasis on specific facts, such as dates.

“History is a story, and a good story can’t be told in five minutes,” Mr. Miller said. "[This kind of teaching] is the equivalent of taking a meal and ramming it down your throat. You may eat it, but you don’t enjoy it. And you may never want to have that meal again.”

Chris Gallo, one of Mr. Miller’s students, agrees that all the data can be hard to digest. “It’s like you cram in as much as you can, and then you’re brain explodes,” the 17-year- old said.

Courtland High teacher Robin Coppock tries to relieve some of that tension by giving her Algebra 2 students test-taking tricks.

Ms. Coppock used to have her students make elaborate quilts out of right triangles or dress up like famous mathematicians such as Pythagoras to bring concepts alive. But now class time that isn’t spent on learning the material is devoted to familiarizing students with test-taking techniques.

As students sat at their desks clicking on their graphing calculators to solve an equation, Ms. Coppock explained to them that because the tests are multiple-choice, they should try to answer the questions they don’t know by plugging in answers until they find the right one. “Just go backwards,” she said.

She also likes to use worksheets to drill her students on word problems, which are perennial stumpers. Questions such as how much corn a farmer has to plant in a field to make a profit, for instance, can be tough, she said. Some students are tripped up by terms they don’t understand, like “interest,” rather than an inability to perform needed calculations.

“A lot of students have math anxiety over word problems,” Ms. Coppock said. “It’s not that they can’t do algebra. They just don’t understand the concept of profit.”

Courtland is just 3 points away from achieving an acceptable passing rate on the Algebra 1 exam—67 percent of its students have passed—and thereby moving a step closer to accreditation.

To help students along, Ms. Coppock and all the other math teachers at Courtland are staying after school to tutor students who need extra help. On a recent Thursday, nine students eschewed sports or the mall to review algebraic formulas. “I’m not good at math,” said 15-year-old sophomore Alexis Ostrander. “It’s nice that Ms. Coppock is here to help us.”

“I think it’s good to have high standards,” Ms. Coppock said, “and I think we will rise to the occasion.”

Mr. Bedwell, the principal, predicted that Courtland’s scores would soar once all students started to feel the pressure.

Even though schools are accredited on the basis of students’ scores, many older students who aren’t required to pass the tests to graduate don’t take them seriously, Mr. Bedwell said.

“The SOLs are pointless,” remarked Justin Curtin, a 16-year- old junior. “I guess a lot,” Natalie Obringer, 16, chimed in. “When I get tired of reading the questions, I just fill in the blanks.”

Starting Young

Most of the 767 pupils at Salem Elementary School a few miles down the road from Courtland High School are blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead.

Not one of the two-dozen 2nd graders bobbing down carpeted halls into Fay Carter’s class on a recent school day had ever heard of the Standards of Learning. They don’t know that the school is only a few points away from becoming accredited and that their test scores next year are needed to help put Salem over the line. “They think it’s a spelling test,” said Ms. Carter, who that morning was trying to teach reading to some of the school’s slowest learners.

In pairs, students practiced how to say and spell words with long O sounds: boat, blow, coal, road. Some stumbled as Ms. Carter prodded them to enunciate. The teacher worries that about 15 percent of those 2nd graders won’t be able even to read the multisyllabic questions on the 3rd grade test.

“Kids don’t walk and talk or get potty-trained at the same time,” she said. “It’s the same with reading. Some just aren’t ready.”

Teri Hanson, a 5th grade teacher at Salem Elementary, agrees that some of the test questions are developmentally inappropriate. Some students in her class had to skip whole sections on one test because they didn’t understand the word “italics.”

In her 5th grade class one recent day, Ms. Hanson whipped a metal coil to simulate the movement of a wave for an oceanography unit that will surface on the 5th grade science test next spring. “What causes a tsunami?” she asked, prompting a student to answer: “Earthquakes or volcanoes.”

Ms. Hanson hasn’t abandoned time- consuming demonstrations like these. But she said more elaborate projects are dependent on whether students behave.

The teacher said the biggest change ushered in by the new tests is a return to focusing on the average student. In the past, students not siphoned off into gifted classes or special education were left without much special attention, she said.

Now that schools are trying to meet the passing rate required for accreditation, Ms. Hanson said, teachers are spending their energies on students who are just below the passing mark. Students who are not in special education but who just aren’t getting it are the ones being left behind by the new system, she said.

Cathy Carr, whose 5th graders struggle academically, predicts that the state will re-evaluate the SOL program once hundreds of parents are told their children won’t be getting diplomas.

“Something will change,” she said, “because people are going to say we can’t justify that number of children failing.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Pressure To Pass Tests Permeates Va. Classrooms


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