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Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Standardized testing scores have become increasingly important over the last several years as school accreditation and teacher evaluations are tied to passing test scores.  The scores are so important that our curriculum has been narrowed to focus solely on tested information and classrooms have become increasingly test driven. Many hours of instruction have been replaced with test prep, practice testing, benchmarks, and test remediation.

Teachers are heavily burdened with micromanaged lesson plans, data collection, data meetings, and the intense pressure of student pass rates for the teacher evaluation process.

Millions of dollars are stripped from our education budget every year to fund the test, testing prep materials, remediation materials, and the significant technology requirements.

The test itself is also problematic.  The test is not only based on standards that are developmentally inappropriate, the questions are presented in developmentally inappropriate formats and there have been many concerns about the computer adaptive feature that has been added.  The test is highly inappropriate for many special education students and English Language Learners. The test is culturally, racially, and socioeconomically biased, using the myth of the 'achievement gap' to further separate schools and students, raising considerable questions of equity.

And if all of this isn't enough reason to question the validity and function of standardized testing, there is also the consideration that every student has different needs and abilities.  Standardized tests are often detrimental to students who have anxiety or do not test well, yet every student is required to test in the same way.

For these reasons and others, many parents choose to opt their children out of Virginia's Standards of Learning testing.

This article will explain how SOL assessments affect your student and how to ‘opt out.’
Let’s start with the basics - a primer on Virginia’s Standards of Learning...

What are SOLs?

The Code of Virginia, the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, establishes the requirements for curriculum and instruction in our public schools.  It states that “each local school board shall develop and implement a program of instruction for grades kindergarten through 12 that is aligned to the Standards of Learning and meets or exceeds the requirements of the board.

According to the Virginia Department of Education,

The Standards of Learning (SOL) for Virginia Public Schools establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade or course in English, mathematics, science, history/social science and other subjects.  Instruction in Virginia's public schools is guided by the Standards of Learning. The standards describe the commonwealth's expectations for student learning and achievement in grades K-12.

Essentially, the Standards of Learning is a collection of all the information and skills to be taught in grades K-12 public school settings.  This drives the curriculum, and aside from being somewhat developmentally inappropriate at most grade levels, Virginia’s standards are fairly... standard.  Not a huge departure from other states’ standards or from Common Core standards.

You can read the Standards of Learning document at this link.  
Click on the blue subject headings on the right hand side of the page, then scroll to the bottom of the page to find the actual standards.  

This leads us to assessment because the standards are required to be assessed.   

How are the SOLs assessed?

The Code of Virginia 8VAC20-131-30 states that:
A.  In kindergarten through eighth grade, where the administration of Virginia assessment program tests are required by the Board of Education, each student shall be expected to take the tests.E.  Each student in middle and secondary schools shall take all applicable end-of-course SOL tests following course instruction.
According to VDOE,
SOL results inform parents and communities about whether students — as individuals and collectively — are meeting the commonwealth’s expectations for achievement in English, mathematics, science and history. SOL tests allow the state Board of Education to identify schools that need assistance and support. The assessments also provide an objective means for measuring achievement gaps between student subgroups and for determining the progress of schools, divisions and the state toward closing these gaps.
While all of that sounds perfectly appropriate in theory, the reality of these assessments is far from appropriate.  The SOL tests are pedagogically unsound in many ways.

Why are SOL tests inappropriate forms of assessment?

  • The tests are developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above the tested grade level.  
  • The tests are culturally biased with reading passage content, values, and test vocabulary favoring upper middle class white students.  This contributes to disparities in test scores between more affluent and high poverty schools. “Low performing” schools become hyper-focused on increasing test scores which leads to fewer enrichment opportunities, more remediation, less recess, and more narrowed curriculum than “higher performing” schools.
  • Citizens often believe the tests are needed to determine student achievement and drive instruction.  Unfortunately, this is not true. The SOL tests are not valid indicators of student achievement, especially since so much instructional time is spent teaching students how to beat the test with strategy practice and tricks to determine answers.
  • School accreditation and 40% of teacher evaluation are based on passing SOL test scores which have  led curriculum and instruction to be primarily test driven.  The intense focus on these scores have created a ‘teach to the test’ mentality in most school districts in which teachers no longer have the autonomy to teach the curriculum as they see fit, but must follow a test driven plan filled with lessons that specifically teach  test taking strategies and test question stems. The high stakes placed on these tests narrow the curriculum.
  • The cost of practice testing, testing, remediation, and retakes is astronomical.  Schools have purchased one to one chromebooks and laptops, upgraded servers, practice testing programs, and added resource teachers for remediation.  Districts and the state pay an outrageous amount of money to Pearson, the company that produces the test, for testing, scoring, and retakes. And guess who creates the practice testing and remediation materials?  Yep - Pearson.
  • SOLs are inherently unfair to smaller, less affluent school districts. These schools are held to same standards as wealthy districts and they are dealing with tech inequity, as legislatures are not currently fully funding schools.
  • Practice for the tests in some schools goes on all year.  Many hours of instruction and enrichment time are lost as kids take predictor tests, practice tests, simulation tests, benchmarks throughout the year.
  • The tests are steeped in secrecy.  Students and teachers are not allowed to discuss any part of the tests, cannot see missed questions, and cut scores are often changed mid testing.

What is OPT OUT?

‘Opt Out” is the common term used when parents and students choose not to take the SOL test.  Virginia law does not actually provide for students to 'opt out' of SOL tests, but it does allow parents to refuse participation in SOL testing for their children.
There are different outcomes in elementary, middle, and high school, which will be explained below.

Why opt out?

Parents and students refuse testing for many reasons  Some families opt out as social protest. There certainly will be no change in SOL testing laws and procedures until parents, students, and teachers speak up. When test refusal creates an impact, our legislators will be more attentive to our concerns.  Additionally, parents do not want their children used to provide data to, or fill the pockets of, large corporations who profit greatly from our intense testing culture.

Many parents refuse testing because of the more direct impact of stress and worry on their children.  Some children have intense anxiety surrounding tests, especially high stakes tests and parents see the impact the intense test stress and anxiety has on children’s mental health.  

In most cases, a failing score on an SOL has significant negative impact on students and a fail is far worse than an opt out.  Some families opt out to avoid the summer school, extensive remediation, and loss of electives in middle school that result from failed SOL tests.
Many parents of special education students refuse testing to prevent their child taking a test that is far above their present level of functioning and incredibly developmentally inappropriate.

Often, English language learners are opted out because they are not yet proficient enough in English to be able to manage the language in the test.

Whatever the reason, parents do have the right to refuse testing and there are few, if any, consequences.

What are the consequences of opting out?

Elementary School

There are no consequences for parental test refusal for elementary students.
SOL scores can not be used as grades in elementary school.  SOL scores can not be required to be admitted into special programs.  The zero score resulting from a test refusal means nothing.
There are, however, many negative consequences for failing an SOL test.  

Students are often placed into remediation groups based on failing SOL scores that preclude them from participating in enrichment activities, resources classes such as music and art, and recess.  Failing scores can be used to require summer school attendance in reading and math, and scores can be used to help determine retention. Students who fail SOLs but come close to a passing score, are required to participate in intensive remediation, often for the entire day for many days, then retake the test to try to get a passing score.

If fifth graders fail SOLs, they may be required to take remediation reading and math classes in middle school instead of electives like music or art.

Middle School

This is much the same as elementary school - there are no consequences for parental test refusal, but there are consequences for failing.  

Students are often placed into remedial reading and math classes based on failing SOL scores that preclude them from participating in electives.  Failing scores can be used to require summer school attendance in reading and math, and scores can be used to help determine retention. Students who fail SOLs but come close to a passing score, are required to participate in intensive remediation, then retake the test to try to get a passing score.

High school students are required to have a certain number of verified credits earned from passing SOL scores to graduate.  Middle school students can receive verified credits for graduation with passing SOL scores from high school level courses such as Algebra, Geometry, Earth Science, and World History.
There are many opportunities to receive verified credits in high school so it is not necessary to take any SOLs in middle school unless the student chooses to do so.

Please keep in mind that middle schools can use SOL scores for report card grades, so an opt out may have an effect on a student’s grade.  Often, a teacher or school will accommodate a test refusal by providing an alternate grade opportunity.

Please note:  Students who take SOLs for verified credits in middle school and met the graduation requirement in a subject area, will often be told they must take additional tests in that subject area in high school.  This is not required for graduation!  It is only to meet federal accountability.  Your child does NOT have to take those tests again!  Please read all of the details concerning this HERE.

High School

Some passing SOL scores provide ‘verified credits’ which are required for graduation.  Credits must be earned in math, science, reading, and history, as well as an additional credit chosen by the student. The laws recently changed so current sophomores, juniors, and seniors have different requirements than current and incoming freshman.  Fortunately the number of required verified credits was reduced!

There are provisions for students who fail a required SOL test. Districts can provide ‘locally-awarded verified credit” for students who score between 375-399.  The specific requirements for this provision can be found here:

Students can opt out of any tests beyond those needed for graduation.  Please keep in mind that high schools can use SOL scores for report card grades, so an opt out may have an effect on a student’s grade.  Often, a teacher or school will accommodate a test refusal by providing an alternate grade opportunity.

How do parents opt out?

Write A Letter

The only requirement to opt your child out of testing is to notify the school, preferably in writing or email.  Your letter does not have to explain why you are refusing testing. You should include:

  • That you are “refusing participation”
  • The specific tests your child is refusing (tests given at different grades levels are found HERE.)
  • The school year
  • Your signature

“I refuse participation for my child, John Doe, in the reading and math SOL tests for the 2018-2019 school year.”

Parents can send in their refusal at any time before the test, even as late as the day of the test.  Advance notification is not required. Parents can refuse one, some, or all tests.

Letters should be sent to the school principal, assistant principal(s), guidance counselor, classroom teacher, and special education teacher and case manager if that applies.  

You should discuss with the school what your child will do when the class is testing.  Some students spend time reading in the library or helping in another classroom. Some parents choose to keep children home on those days, (although, that may be an unexcused absence.)  Some schools want to give opt out students a practice SOL test while the class is taking the actual test so be sure to specify your wishes.

Please note that you can also refuse participation in district level practice tests, simulation tests, benchmarks, SOL remediation groups, SOL test cramming homework, SOL pep rallies, etc.

You can send copies of the refusal letter to the superintendent, school board, board of supervisors or city council, legislators, etc. if you would like to share the message of harmful testing beyond the school level.

What happens when a parent refuses SOL testing?

Virginia Board of Education regulations state that the following procedures should be followed within school divisions when parents refuse participation:

  • The parents should be informed that their student’s score report will reflect a score of “0” for any test that is refused.
  • The school is strongly encouraged to request a written statement from parents indicating the specific test(s) the parents refuse to have their student complete. The document should be maintained in the student’s file as a record of the decision.
  • To account for the student, a test record for the refused test(s) is to be submitted for scoring with a Testing Status 51 coded to indicate the parent refusal.

Common misconceptions about SOL testing

  • If they don’t test now, they won’t know how to tests in high school/sats/act, etc.
    • Students do not need six+ years of SOL tests to be prepared for a standardized tests. Students who are homeschooled, in private schools, or have opted out generally perform well on high school SOLs and college entrance exams.
  • The tests are needed to determine student achievement and drive instruction.
    • The SOL tests are not a true measure of what students learned. The test passages are above grade level (often 2+ grades) and culturally biased, students are explicitly taught every strategy and trick in the book to get questions correct even if they don’t know the answer, the questions are purposely ambiguous, the test vocabulary is tied to socioeconomic status, and the scoring is beyond understanding. We are lying to our children if we let them believe the test is valid in any way.
  • SOLs show which schools are superior and which schools are failing
    • SOL scores are an indicator of socioeconomic status.

Ultimately, these tests are deceptive.  Parents generally have the mindset that passing or scoring well on a test is an indicator that  the child is doing well in school. Parents believe the SOL is an actual measure of success and have no idea that the tests are incredibly flawed on so many levels.

Please join the RVA Opt Out Facebook group to learn so much more and ask specific questions:

If You Give A Teacher A Work Day...

If you give a teacher a day to work in her classroom...

If you give a teacher a day to work in her classroom, she will probably be so startled by the amazingly shiny, waxed floors, she won't notice the that all the computers have been piled in the sink.  

As she gazes across the shiny floor, she'll become so excited that she'll probably start unpacking the first box she gets her hands on, pulling out all the fun subitizing math centers with cute erasers from Dollar Tree.

That will remind her of all the bags of stuff she brought with her today from Target Dollar Spot that she's been amassing all summer long and hiding from her husband under the guest room bed.  She will start to go through all the bags, pulling out the alphabet cards, and felt fraction sets, and colorful clothespins, and some ceramic apple thing that she's not sure what to do with.

Then she'll realize she can't put any of those things away yet since every single piece of furniture is piled precariously in the corner, so she'll start to move tables.  And desks. And chairs. And shelves. 

When she moves the shelves, she'll remember all the categorized book labels she printed and laminated for her classroom library and start searching for them in the giant stack of boxes, none of which she actually labeled in the frenzy to get out of this place last June.  

As she's shoving boxes around everywhere, she'll get distracted by the bright, neatly folded, clean curtains she took home and washed over the summer.  

Since she can't find the curtain rods in any of the 37 boxes she has unpacked into the middle of the floor, she'll start putting up a bulletin board.  

While looking for the *good* stapler on her desk, she'll decide to try to put her desk in order and organize all her Sharpies, and Mr. Sketch markers, and Flair pens into color coordinated containers. She'll have to try every single color. Twice.

Her team mate will come in and ask her to go to lunch.  An actual meal out at a restaurant with colleagues that will last more than 7 minutes.

After lunch, she'll open the closet and discover the pocket charts, the birthday box, the easel charts, the curtain rods, and the word wall banner.  She'll realize she needs a step ladder because the last time she stood on a chair there was an accident report involved, so she will head out to find the keeper of the tall step ladder, the head custodian.

As she's searching all four million square feet of the building, always two steps behind the elusive custodian and the tall step ladder, she'll spot her teacher BFF's adorable classroom already set up and beautifully organized.  She'll become instantly convinced that her classroom will not be even remotely ready by the end of the week and she'll start to run at a full sprint, in a panic, back to her hot mess of a classroom.

It is now time to go home, every box is half unpacked, the room is destroyed, nothing is actually finished, and she'll need at least two more classroom work days to undo the damage.

Welcome Back to School!

The Dark Side of Inspirational Quotes

Don't let the inspirational, uplifting quotes that tell us how amazing teaching is supposed to be, drag you to the dark side of cynicism and guilt.

We have all seen them as we scroll through our FB, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Those concise, inspirational zingers that get to the heart of a matter in 20 words or less.
Some of them are cute, some are political, some are snarky. They are judgy, cliche, uplifting, or clever. They have the power to make us feel joy, have a moment of introspection, feel vindicated, or hang our head in shame.

But the teaching related quotes - oh the feels, the excitement, the shame, the guilt.

"Teaching is a work of heart!"

“It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.”

“Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.”

“The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.”

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." 

"A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart."

"Some teachers taught the curriculum today. Other teachers taught students today. And there's a big difference."

 I know they are meant to be uplifting and inspiring, but they also can have a dark side - they can be stress and guilt inducing. It is so easy to fall into the trap of not feeling adequate when all you see is how teaching is the most heartwarming, altruistic, amazing experience on the planet and all you can think of is the massive workload, the endless data meetings, and the raw nerve endings from that kid that drove you completely insane today.

Yes, all of these quotes are true and of course, we take our professional purpose quite seriously.  By nature, those who enter this profession care deeply about young people, their well being, and their future. We can't help ourselves, I mean we aren't just pushing papers around here, we're working with little humans and it is a colossal responsibility.  

And so we become especially susceptible to allowing some of these quotes get to us.  We see the perfection, the goal, the expectation, and when we don't feel we measure up, we allow our spirits to be bruised and our confidence to fade.

But you know what?  Some days, I don't feel like I shaped a mind or affected eternity.  Some days I gave busywork while I worked on endless data sheets. Some days I lost my patience and fussed at a kid.  Some days I showed a video because I didn't have the strength to plan another freaking lesson last night. Some days I rolled my eyes at meetings, and complained with my colleagues, and sent a kid to another class because my nerves were shot. Some days I went home and cried.

Social media is certainly a remarkable platform and I love the connection, collaboration, the opportunity to see across the planet in an instant.  But we need to remember that what comes across our feeds is generally carefully curated.  We need to be cautious about how we integrate the messages that bombard us as we scroll.

I probably bristle more than most at some of these posts because I tend to be a little more snarky and cynical than the average human (if you need convincing, just check out my Facebook and Instagram :)  But even I get caught on the dark side of the inspirational quote.  Heck, I've even written and shared some myself!

This post is just a reminder to us all that while yes, teaching is all about heart, and love, and rainbows, and unicorns, it is also about exhaustion, and aggravation, and snarkiness, and complaining.  All of that is okay - we need balance to survive.  Just don't get stuck in either place for too long!

So for every sweet, uplifting, selfless quote telling you how to be the Teacher of the Universe that you see scroll by on your feed like these...

 are a few things to keep you balanced.  You can live vicariously through my teacher fails, snarkiness, and hot mess moments.  Some of these days are not my proudest moments, but they are the real moments.

Don't buy into the Hallmark version of teaching.  Teaching is just too complicated, messy, and imperfect.

25 Sensory Fidget Ideas

Fidgets are small toys or items that can be used to provide sensory input in order to reduce distraction or anxiety. They help improve concentration or attention by allowing the brain to filter out the extra sensory information through the physical manipulation of the fidget toy.

Fidgets can be an invaluable tool for many students who have difficulty with sensory processing, attention and distraction, anxiety, etc.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great fidget items to help students calm anxiety or occupy their hands so they can focus.  I have only highlighted 25 here but there are hundreds of options out there.  The items listed below are linked to either a blog post or article that provides more information, or an affiliate link to the item.

1.  Sand timers - simple, inexpensive, yet calming and quiet. 
2.  Sensory bottles - calming, easy to make at home, endless possibilities
My friend Jamie at Play to Learn Preschool is a master at creating these bottles. Find out how HERE.

3.  Koosh Balls - lightweight, soft, textured.  And if they do happen to fly, they probably won't hurt ;)
4.  Play dough - a classic and you can make it right in your own kitchen!
Another link to Play to Learn Preschool for a great recipe.

5.  Tangles - they twist and turn all sorts of ways and they are QUIET!
6.  Fidget Cubes - Some of them make clicking noises, but they are small and inconspicuous.

7.  Stress Balloons - filled with flour, these are incredibly cheap to make at home and hold up really well.  Here's a TUTORIAL.

8.  Pencil Top Fidgets - small, quiet, always available

9.  Silly Putty - Another inexpensive classic!
10.  Stretchy Coil Keyring - These are available just about everywhere and super cheap.

11.  Sensory Ball - A different sensory experience than the koosh ball
12.  Spinning Ring - this would be a discreet fidget for older kids
13.  Bendeez - Flexible, twisty, soft, and quiet

14.  Plastic Chain - articulated, plastic chain, lightweight, quiet

15.  Nuts and Bolts - The plastic ones are probably quieter, but I love the texture of the wooded toys

16.  Wooden Cube Puzzle - small, quiet, articulated wooden blocks

17.  Beanbags - another great fidget to make at home for next to nothing.
18.  Monkey Fidgetz - a marble inside a tube of plastic mesh

19.  Worry Stones - Hard, smooth stones to turn over in your hands

20.  Twiddle Cat - This one is a bit pricey, but oh my gosh, this is amazing!

21.  Zipper Bracelet - this one might make a little noise, but what a great idea!

22.  Slinky - Even the plastic ones are a bit noisy, but they are small and inexpensive.

23.  DIY Bead Fidget - Easy to make, super inexpensive.
Make this DIY fidget tool for use in the classroom or at home while writing and reading to help kids focus, attend, and perform tasks with tactile sensory input and movement they need to help with fidgeting.

24.  Atom Ball - Squishy, quiet, textured.

25.  Spikey Bracelet - Textured and soft.