Virginia teacher lends perspective on standardized tests on Capitol Hill


By Amanda Litvinov

The national conversation about education has revolved around  testing for at least a decade—and with states grappling to address parent and educator concerns about too many tests of too little value and on-again-off-again talk of reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

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A panel discussion on Capitol Hill on the state of assessments on Tuesday offered plenty for lawmakers to think about, from the practical to the philosophical.

Panelist and World History and Government teacher Lauren Ashley Villa had this bit of advice for determining the worth of any test: It is only worthwhile if it opens a dialogue between teacher and student about the student’s progress.

“That pretty much rules out all standardized tests,” said Villa, who teaches in Reston, Virginia.

She illustrated her point by comparing how and what students learn in two classes that she teaches: World History I, where the pace and content are dictated by state’s Standards of Learning  and accompanying mandated tests, and Honors Government, which is not subject to state testing.

Lauren Ashley Villa
Lauren Ashley Villa

World History I teachers are issued a pacing guide meant to help them squeeze in all the content that will be covered on benchmark exams and the end-of-year test. “You have 30 minutes for the Ancient Egyptians and five minutes for the Phoenicians, so you really hope the fire alarm doesn’t go off during that class,” said Villa.

The testing timeframe demands that Villa and her co-teachers stay in lock-step with the prescribed path through the content, forcing them to abandon creative approaches that would require more time and denying students the opportunity to dive into the topics that interest them the most.

She estimates that educators spend about 60 percent of their time in classes like World History I on test prep and administration. Most frustrating of all, said Villa, is that the SOL tests provide no valuable data that educators can use to gauge student progress or the effectiveness of their instruction.

“These tests don’t facilitate the dialogue that makes an assessment valuable,” said Villa. “Students just receive a numeric score, so they don’t really know how they performed, and they certainly don’t learn why an answer was a good answer or should have been a different answer.”

Free of the standardized testing timeframe, her Government class is focused on critical thinking and lots of writing. While studying the legislative branch, for example, her students step into the role of a federal lawmaker to debate policy issues, such as how to make the food supply safer (a topic of the students’ choosing).

After dissecting recent developments, the FDA’s role and how legislators and lobbyists interact, the students wrote solution proposal letters, which they sent to President Obama. And they got a reply.

“We got a letter saying what a good job they did on their essays. I’m sure a staff member wrote it, but they included one of Barack Obama’s personally signed photographs, which meant the world to the students, that the President put a pen to that page. They will never forget my class or writing those letters, and what they learned about the legislative process.”

Fellow panelist Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, challenged lawmakers to think of it this way: You know you’re in trouble when doing well on the test becomes the definition of what it means to be educated.

That may never have been the intent of lawmakers searching for ways to measure student learning—but educators like Villa say the testing regime currently in place is pushing us in that direction.

“I didn’t become an educator to be a test administrator,” she said. “You can’t measure through a standardized test the worth of the educational experience of students in my Government class, you can’t collect data from it. But it’s not hard to see there’s some serious learning happening there.”

Reader Comments

  1. As I listen to the comments and discussion about testing, I have missed feelings about it. I am currently an Assessment Specialist in a school system and although assessments is my job, I care deeply about ALL students and whether or not they are passing. However, I feel that we are in a situation that removing the test from the schools in VA will cause more harm then good. Please allow me to explain my opinion: We would have to also reform because of the students that have gone on and had passed everything that was required to graduate except the passing of SOLs. Some of these students return as Test Takers for years trying to pass sols or in some cases they give up and drop out. How would we give back to these students if we just cold turkey stopped SOLs? That is right, we can not.I do agree that we need to continue to reduce testing in Elementary, Middle, & High school but we are in NO place to eliminate all together.

  2. Nice work on an issue that hits home in California. My 8th grade students have to take the California Standards Test which not only tests students on 8th grade material of which we can never cover in its entirety as well as 50% of the test questions are related to 6th and 7th grade World History. Due to this, at least 3 weeks are lost due to reviewing for the “test” so that the site can maintain high scores. This is total insanity as students are being deprived of quality and engaging instruction which actually provides a meaningful educational experience.

    Furthermore the scores have no meaning when it comes to providing students with input as they are onto high school when scores are released. The scores are also irrelevant when it comes to assessing teaching because of the makeup of the test.

    Other than contacting state legislatures on this issue I have had no luck with anyone who has provided a logical response to my concern. I am thrilled that you were able to take it to the next level. I hope be able to have a similar conversation at the state level.

  3. I retired in 2007 after spending a lifetime teaching in one of those public inner city high schools that educational reformers, like Michlle Rhee, love to hate.

    For years, our school had a writing assessment exam, which the English department scored. I told my students that if they did not pass the writing assessment exam, they would not pass my class. I also told them that if they scored high on the writing exam, I would count it as part of their grade.

    I then proceeded to “teach to the test.” All of my exams and assignments centered around writing. (I used the writing domains furnished by CLAS.) So that by the time the assessment exam came around, my students knew exactly what to do.

    We had a couple of practice assessments before the final exam, which counted on my students grade. After these assessments, if a student did not pass, I would go over what the student needed to do to get a passing grade and I’d have the student re-wrie the exam.

    Do you know what my pass rate was?

    Somewhere between 85 to 87 %.

    And remember I was a horrible unionized teacher teaching in a horrible union-dominated high school.

    Of course, I did have a Plan B. Any student who failed the final exam, had to come after school for a remedial session. They would rewrite the exam under my supervision. So I even upped the pass rate.

    Our school’s writing assessment exam is the best way to assess student progress. Students must get the results. If students do poorly, teachers should be able to hold a student-parent conference to go over the exam. Remedial tutoring must be offered. And students must have the opportunity to take the exam again.

    Follow this formula and test scores will improve.

  4. The standardized test and distance learning is beloved of the for profit school systems they have sold our politicians on the idea. I am 67 years old and I have never learned anything by taking a test. Distance learning is also greatly overrated as there is little or no interaction between peers and the teacher. Good teachers who are dedicated to their students and challanging coursework is the key to learning. Always has been and always will be.

  5. Great article showing details of the lock-step, timed approach one is forced to take to cover tested material.

    BTW, I hate to burst the student’s bubble, but those signed photographs? Obama didn’t actually sign those. They have a robo-pen thing that does it. But it’s still meaningful!

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