By Debbie Adams
Elizabeth Martinez and Keith Schult seriously dislike Standards of Learning testing—always have, probably always will—seemingly just like the majority of students in the state of Virginia.
The difference between them and most students is that they have decided—with the help of teacher Megan Herndon and state Delegate Chris Head—to do something tangible about the SOL’s– if not to get rid of them altogether, to at least make them more palatable to and beneficial for students. Through the ultimate Civics lesson, they have transformed their Civics knowledge into action and become participants in government.
Martinez and Schult are eighth graders at William Byrd Middle School. Herndon is their Advanced Civics teacher. Delegate Head represents citizens who live in District 17 which includes parts of Roanoke County, Botetourt County and Roanoke City. All of the Town Vinton lies within his district.
The idea for changing the SOL’s began in Herndon’s class with the political process unit she teaches for Civics SOL CE.5. Herndon says this SOL covers the political spectrum on the local, state, and national level from functions of political parties and their similarities to campaigns for elective office, the role of the media, costs of campaigns and contributions, voter registration, the role of the Electoral College, and the importance of voting.
As she emphasized in class the significance of voting and how laws affect our individual lives, her students commented that they feel helpless “as kids” since they can’t vote. Ah—but you can petition, Herndon informed them. That got the ball rolling on their efforts to eliminate or at least modify the SOL’s.
Martinez and Schult decided to get in touch with Delegate Head, who responded almost immediately. They chose Head since SOL’s are state tests and he is “closer to the action,” and “able to possibly do something about the issue.”
They set up a virtual meeting and discussed their petition. Head assigned them more research on the topic with an invitation to meet with him at the Capitol in Richmond when it was complete, and the General Assembly was in session.
Martinez says the first step was a little rocky—it took them two hours to come up with the title for their petition, “End SOLs for All Students in Virginia.” However, their research helped their ideas to coalesce.
Her main issue with SOL testing is the mental stress it puts on both students and teachers. Schult’s concern is with the cookie cutter standardization of multiple-choice SOL testing, which does not conform to the individual needs of students who might do better on performance-based assessments. In the end, the two students came up with some suggestions for continuing SOL testing with modifications and alternatives if need be.
The petition begins, SOLs are “now putting more pressure than ever on students. Keith and I, as well as many students in Virginia, would be better off without these tests. First, these tests cause a high amount of stress on students. Some students do not work well under pressure, so the SOLs do not help. Students already have enough homework as it is, so the SOLs add on to that. SOLs also cause high levels of anxiety in students.”
The petition continues, “SOLs are the current system keeping teachers accountable, but there are other ways that they can assess students. These days, students use technology in their day-to-day lives. This means, if educational video games are used, the tests can still be taken by students but would be more fun and less stressful. With educational video games, students’ skills can still be assessed, but in a way that the students will enjoy.”
And, “Every single student in Virginia, as well as all around the world, has a different learning style. Some students learn things very fast, and others learn slow. Some students learn better in auditory ways, some learn by seeing, and others learn better by being hands-on and doing things. The SOLs are almost the exact opposite of these ways of learning. Since every student has a different learning style, one single test for all students would not show whether a student is smart, or if they may need help. A multiple-choice test, such as the SOLs, can’t accurately assess problem-solving skills, application skills, or critical thinking.”
Their research indicated that “49% of parents/guardians have agreed that students experience too much of the SOLs and that they should at least be downsized.”
Other concerns derived from their research include:
- Teachers are always trying to prepare their students for the SOLs at the end of the year when they really should be preparing these students for college and the real world.
- Health consequences associated with standardized testing include stomachaches and vomiting, headaches, sleep problems, depression, attendance problems, and acting out.
- Students can have average or even amazing grades for the entire school year, and then they are made to feel bad over one test. While teachers are preparing kids for SOLs, they teach in a way that is standard and makes learning boring. Seventy percent of teachers surveyed feel that the focus on high-stakes testing takes too much time away from learning. This causes lower test scores because kids start to lose interest.
- Fifty-four percent of Virginia tax money goes into schools, and this includes the funding for the SOLS. If the schools of Virginia take SOLs away, they could use the extra money to improve their schools.
Once the petition was complete, Martinez and Schult made their trip to the General Assembly when schools were closed on February 7. Delegate Head introduced them from the floor of the House of Delegates as they sat in the gallery above. They spent the day touring the Capitol, learning its history, watching committees work, and watching the delegates on the floor in debate as bills were advanced from committees to be considered for passage to the Senate.
Herndon says the students were able to observe lawmakers making choices that affect us every day.
Head described their stance on the SOL’s, the petition they had been working on, and then said, “I can tell you I think we’re going to have a piece of legislation crafted next year that these two had their hand in and that we will hope to bring forward. I would not be a bit surprised if you didn’t see either one or both of them someday serving in this Chamber, because it really is pretty astounding. They are really, really, sharp kids. Their passion for government and the legislative process will serve the Roanoke region, and the entire Commonwealth, well. These two have a bright future!”
Roanoke County Public Schools Director of Assessment & Research Ben Williams says some options do currently exist for SOL assessments in some subjects.
“When the General Assembly removed the SOLs several years ago in U.S. History to 1865 (6th grade), U.S. History from 1865 to Present (7th Grade), 3rd Grade Science, 3rd Grade Social Studies, and 5th Grade Writing they replaced those SOLs with required local assessments for those courses which have to be in performance assessment format,” Williams explained. “There is also an option to do performance assessments in place of the high school VA/US History course as well.”
Martinez, Schult, and Herndon agree that those performance assessments need to be extended to other courses evaluated by the SOL’s.
Herndon says she doesn’t’ ever recall having a student say they liked the SOL’s. She believes the standardized testing “causes lots of anxiety and stress” and that was especially so during the pandemic. While she realizes it’s a “data driven” world, there needs to be a change in assessments, gearing them toward individual student needs and strengths. Teachers are urged to differentiate for their students in preparing lessons, but there is no corresponding differentiation provided in assessments—“they are all tested the same.” She believes SOL’s tend to take the creativity out of education.
The students were not only recognized at the General Assembly; they were also the focus at the February 24 School Board meeting when WBMS Principal Todd Kageals presented a video on the school as part of the “Spotlight on Schools” series. He highlighted their experience with developing the petition and partnering with Delegate Head as “deeper and authentic learning—a real life application of the political process.”
Martinez, Schult, and Herndon also addressed the School Board on their petition, taking the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of the SOL process.
School Board Vice Chairman Brent Hudson commended Herndon as a “young teacher showing students how the system works who got behind them so they could get their voices heard.”
Vinton’s representative to the Board, Tim Greenway, praised Herndon for her efforts (especially considering that she teaches three different subjects at three different schools), and expressed his pride in her, Martinez, Schult, and Roanoke County Schools.
Schult says he and Martinez are getting all kinds of suggestions from other students on what to do next—one requested a petition on doing away with homework. He also says he has learned from the experience not to just complain, but to actually take action on issues that affect you.
The two have become recognized at WBMS since their video at the General Assembly with Delegate Head was broadcast to all classes.
Martinez is also involved in piano and lacrosse. Her mother is Danielle Middleton. Schult is a swimmer, a jazz band musician, and plays baseball. His parents are Jennifer and Keith Schult.