VASSP Board Members Address Standards of Learning Innovation Committee

During the 2014 legislative session of the General assembly of Virginia, a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee was created from HB930. The purpose of the committee was to “provide the Board of Education and General Assembly with suggestions on changes to the SOL assessments, authenticate individual growth measures, alignment between the Standards of Learning and assessment, and ideas on innovative teaching in the classroom.”

On September 30, 2014, the committee met with and listened to public comments regarding the SOL.  VASSP had two members for the VASSP Board of Directors in attendance who addressed the SOL Innovative Committee.

Past President Dr. David Elena and board member Dr. Jeffery Carroll met with and spoke to the committee. Each of the board members comments are listed below.

Dr. Elena’s comments:

Secretary Holton, Superintendent Staples and Chairman Siebert, members of the SOL Innovation Committee,

My name is Dr. David S. Ellena, and I am the proud Principal of Tomahawk Creek Middle School in the Chesterfield division. I am also the Immediate Past President of the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals. I am currently in my 30th year of public education, the last 15 as an administrator at the middle school level. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the critically important work of your committee.

During my brief time, I would like to discuss three areas of SOL innovation that I feel deserve consideration by your group.

As a middle school principal, I have watched as many of my students worked diligently throughout the year to prepare for the Standards of Learning tests, only to fall short by what amounts to one or two questions.  These students have worked hard, and have a mastery level that, for that one day, fell just short. If they were high school students, they would have the opportunity to receive targeted instruction that would focus on areas where they may have fallen short, and then a second chance to take the test and achieve a passing score. I would submit to you that my students deserve the same opportunities afforded to high school students who find themselves in a similar situation. I realize that SOL scores are one measurement used to evaluate schools, but my reasoning goes deeper than that. To see the excitement and joy of a student who has worked untiringly and passed an SOL test in a certain subject, maybe even for the first time, is what education really should be about. The option of an expedited retest for middle school students would accomplish this, and reduce some test anxiety as well.

As your committee looks at reducing the number of SOL tests mandated for our students, I would also like to make sure that your group spends a significant amount of time deliberating on what localities will use to demonstrate student mastery of concepts and ensure that educators are fulfilling their responsibilities to teach the standards. Replacing one test with another test is not innovative and will do nothing to reduce the amount of testing at the local level. Using alternative forms of assessment is a significant piece to the work of this committee. Student portfolios, video essays, electronic documentation and project based learning activities are just a few of the myriad ways that a student can demonstrate mastery of a concept or parts of the curriculum. I would encourage the committee to create a resource for teachers and administrators to use to assess our students in authentic and creative methods.

Last, we are very fortunate here in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. We have outstanding educators who on a daily basis do everything within their power to advance our students knowledge and thirst for learning. We need to do everything we can to provide these dedicated educators the tools they need so that our children can benefit. I would submit to the committee that this consists of three things, guidance, resources and professional development in alternate methods of assessment. We have educators who are doing great things in our many diverse school settings. Guidance from this Committee will be crucial to the continued success of our students. We need to leverage current technologies to allow them easy access to their peers so that they can share best practices, ask questions and gain insight into ways to best serve their students. This can be done in a variety of ways, including the use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Docs, all of which have little or no cost. Finally, we need to provide professional development for our teachers, the majority of which have known nothing but the Standards of Learning system. The SOL tests are no longer a measurement of minimum knowledge. They are tests that are rigorous and focus on critical thinking skills and the application of knowledge. Our teachers need thorough professional development from a variety of sources to guarantee that we are assessing our students in meaningful ways.

On behalf of the students and faculty of Tomahawk Creek Middle School, home of the Timberwolves, and the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, I would like to thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. If I can be of any further assistance, I am leaving some of my contact information here. Please do not hesitate to contact me.

Dr. Carroll’s comments:

My name is Jeff Carroll, and I am the principal of Warhill High School in Williamsburg. I, also, am a member of the Virginia Association of Secondaey School Principals’ Board of Directors. Thank you for the opportunity to share a few ideas from a high school principal’s perspective today.

As the committee seeks to reduce the number of SOL assessments in high school, we encourage you to remember the current connection between SOL assessments, verified credits and graduation requirements. These three areas must be addressed in a coordinated effort, or a simple reduction of SOL assessments may have unintended consequences. For example, the geometry assessment requires different mathematical thinking than the Algebra I or Algebra II assessment, and it frequently is the one verified math credit a student who struggles with algebraic thinking may earn.  World History and World Geography frequently are taken early in a student’s high school career. Simple elimination of these assessments could cause verified credit issues at a later time for the student with fewer chances to remediate and earn the verified credit.  High school principals support the reduction of these assessments and the work of this committee. We just ask that you consider how these assessments work towards the ultimate goal of high school graduation.

As high school principals, we love our jobs and the opportunity to positively impact the lives of students on a daily basis.  The job of a high school principal in the 21st Century, however, it is not easy. We face numerous challenges and ever changing demands. As professionals, one way we are better able to address the needs of our students is by means of our continued professional development. Whatever the final recommendations from this Committee with regard to high schools, we ask that you include guidance, resources and professional development for us as school leaders to meet these new expectations. Thank you again for the opportunity to share these ideas with you today.