Each school year, students and teachers across Virginia hunker down in their classrooms for hours of standardized testing.
A lot is riding on the results of Standards of Learning exams — state accreditation for schools and school divisions, perhaps even graduation itself for some students.
That kind of pressure can have effects — something critics of the state program have worried about for years. Now, some schools and education groups are trying to ease that pressure.
Most teachers aren’t opposed to standardized testing, said Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association. It’s a useful way to identify a student’s strengths and weakness. But one of the problems, he said, is that students worry they’ll disappoint their parents or teachers. That, he said, comes from the way the tests have been used and interpreted.
Crystal Haskins, the principal of Dozier Middle School in Newport News, sees that side effect every year.
“When we have testing, that changes the whole dynamic of the building,” she said.
In previous years, for at least 14 days, students at Dozier would spend hours locked in classrooms until the testing was over. The school tried to limit foot traffic in the hallways and asked teachers to plan quiet lessons.
This year, the testing coordinators for the school cut the number of testing days to seven and allowed students who weren’t in exams to change classes like a normal day. Testing time used to be like a lockdown, so condensing the number of testing days was a big deal, Haskins added.
But just like with setting their testing schedule, the individual schools and teachers are making determinations about the culture to create around the testing.
At Carrollton Elementary in Isle of Wight, administrators try to make sure tests aren’t seen as “some big, scary thing,” Lynn Biggs, a spokeswoman for the county’s schools, said.
Teachers at the school wear jeans to promote a casual atmosphere and wear sneakers to reduce noise. The students are given mints and gum to improve focus during the test and receive notes of encouragement and treats.
Several schools in Isle of Wight also provide extended time for recess before and after the test. Hardy Elementary cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’s stance on benefits of recess for students as motivation for the decision. The academy says that in addition to health and social benefits, recess can also improve cognitive performance.
Other schools bring more attention to the tests and hope to make the testing season fun.
Haskins says spirit weeks and pep rallies give students and teachers the “chance to let their hair down.”
“I think it’s a mix of trying to have some fun while also being very clear about the expectations of the test,” Haskins said. “These tests are just tests. We have confidence in what our teachers are teaching all year and how our students have been performing all year — if we just do our best then everything will be OK.”
In order to graduate, students who entered high school in fall 2018 will need to earn five verified credits — credits are verified by passing an end-of-course SOL test or an alternative assessment approved by the Board of Education. Students who were already in high school will need to earn nine verified credits for an advanced diploma and six for the standard diploma.
The reduction of SOL tests for high school students will allow more time for honing the soft skills and attributes — creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and citizenship — that employers and colleges have said are important, said Charles Pyle, Virginia Department of Education spokesman. But he said the SOL tests are still necessary for identifying schools where students are struggling.
“I’m not going to say there was no discussion about test anxiety — but there’s test anxiety that students can get anxious about taking a test that a teacher hands out the next day and they prepare for that test by studying,” Pyle said. “SOL tests test the content that is taught during a course or a particular grade level.”
SOL scores also factor into teacher evaluations and a school’s accreditation score. Scores may be taken into consideration for students interested in advanced classes.
“There is a lot of pressure on the kids to pass these tests,” said Courtney Engel, mother of a Grafton High School student.
Camille Donne considered opting her daughter out of the SOL exams when the fourth-grade student started worrying about the tests because she was having difficulties in two of her classes. She ultimately chose not to because she thought it would be a disservice to the teachers at the school and she wanted her daughter to have exposure to the exams to reduce the risk of future test anxiety.
“I do not know her score and am not sure I will read the scores,” Donne said in an email. “She had the experience and overcame her anxieties and that’s what matters most to me.”
Many schools are also relying on school counselors. In Hampton, for example, elementary school guidance counselors meet with students to provide test-taking tips and talk about time management.
Teachers, counselors and staff look for signs of stress, like students who are hesitant to finish tests because they’re afraid of making mistakes or say things like “I can’t do this,” said Antonia Fox, assistant superintendent for instruction and support services at Poquoson City Public Schools. They also watch for students who complain about physical problems like headaches and stomach aches.
After a student is identified as having testing stress, the counselors works to help them recognize their signs of stress and develop coping skills, Fox said.
Virginia eliminated five elementary and middle school SOL tests in 2014, which means students will take 29 of the standardized tests from third through eighth grade. But documents on VDOE’s website say the Board of Education said it was looking for additional ways to “reduce the burden of testing while maintaining accountability.”
“Is this something that I believe the state and the community and maybe even some parents look at to determine the success of the school? Absolutely,” Haskins said. “However, these tests are not going to make or break our spirit.”
Jessica Nolte, 757-247-4513, email@example.com, @jessicamnolte