By my rough calculation, my daughters, who are currently juniors at T.C., will have taken around 45 high-stakes exams—Standards of Learning (SOLs), Advanced Placement (AP) exams, SAT and ACT college entrance exams, and SAT II subject tests—by the time they leave Alexandria City Public Schools. Throw in a couple of PSATs and an SAT/ACT practice combo test and the total is nearly 50. (By contrast, when I was their age, I took a grand total of two: the SAT once, and the Virginia state high-school competency test, a requirement for graduation that included an assessment of my aptitude for folding a road map.)
Current elementary students in Alexandria will have it a bit easier than their older siblings, however. The SOLs—the only tests that are mandated by the state—were amended by the 2014 General Assembly, thanks to legislation introduced and shepherded through by Del. Rob Krupicka of Alexandria and Del. Tag Greason of Loudon County. Because of growing concern about the amount of time spent in the classroom on test-preparation and the harmful effects of the test-driven culture on students, lawmakers agreed to eliminate some of the tests that were being used for accountability and to replace them with alternative types of assessments.
The legislation eliminated the Grade 3 History, Grade 3 Science, Grade 5 Writing, and Grades 6 and 7 U.S. History SOLs. At the same time, the legislation requires local school boards to administer an alternative “authentic” assessment—as opposed to a guess-the-right-answer test model—to ensure that students are grasping the Standards of Learning content.
These changes “reflect the direction that the whole country is heading,” says Dr. John L. Brown, Executive Director of Curriculum Services and Design for ACPS. And within the state, ACPS is ahead of the curve. The transfer tasks that were incorporated into the ACPS curriculum several years ago and that allow students to transfer that knowledge to the job of solving a real-world problem, says Brown, parallel the performance-based assessments now required by the state. These alternative assessments give teachers more space for creativity and flexibility in the classroom, while also requiring students to “show what they know.”*
“This is the beginning of a potential major paradigm shift in education,” adds Clinton Page, ACPS Chief Accountability Officer. “A true authentic performance task gives teachers more insight into a child’s thought process than they can glean from a multiple-choice test.” As a result, says Page, there is a better opportunity for teachers to provide remediation.
In addition to making sure that transfer tasks in the ACPS curriculum are fully aligned with new state standards, school administrators are also gathering feedback from teachers to confirm that the transfer tasks reflect what they are teaching. The transfer tasks themselves are also continually being revised to take better advantage of technology, and professional development is helping to make the scoring process more consistent among teachers. Student scores on transfer tasks will not be sent to the state, but state education officials will be conducting random classroom audits.
Because of concern locally among teachers and parents about too much testing, ACPS has recently reduced the frequency of “criterion reference tests” (CRTs), which are given to students in grades and courses where there is an end-of-year SOL. Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), Scholastic Math Inventory (SMI) and Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) tests will still be administered because they are important tools for teachers to monitor the progress of students from year to year, and over the course of a school-year.
The SOL legislation created a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee to look at other ways to improve testing and assessment methods in the state. School board member Kelly C. Booz represents Alexandria on this committee.
*Here’s an example from T.C. Williams of how a transfer task allows a student to “show what they know” but also to apply a level of creative expression or originality to the task that’s not possible in a multiple-choice exam: This fall, my daughter Laura’s Latin IV class, taught by Mr. Redpath, was assigned to read The Satyricon by Petronius, a classic text that describes a banquet hosted by a nouveau-riche character named Trimalchio. The transfer task assignment was to plan a modern-day banquet in the style of Trimalchio, and Laura chose a banquet with A Great Gatsby theme because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel (which she will be reading later this year in her AP Language and Composition class) was influenced by The Satyricon.