Although I am now in my mid-forties, I still measure years in terms of school calendars. Even when I stayed home with my children, I measured time this way. The year ends for me in June and restarts again in the fall. I guess that so many years of schooling conditioned me this way. So here we are again nearing the “end of the year” and it’s time to reflect.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and that means that the end of the school year is nigh. The end of the school year means one thing in Virginia Public Schools: SOLs. Yep, the end of year high stakes tests in Virginia are called SOLs. That means that classes are basically shut down for a month while we review constantly and then “invite” students who are “at risk” of “failing” to attend “Boot Camps” after school. Can you imagine a less inviting program to attend? Even people who join the military enthusiastically don’t really want to attend boot camp. They’re not invited to attend. They have no choice. So, this is how we offer kids extra help to hopefully pass their SOL.
I comforted one of my students in the Student Services office this week. She was very upset that she had to go back to boot camp for math. She said that it stressed her out and made her feel very anxious. I asked her, “Do you like math?” and she answered, “Yes,” which completely broke my heart. I am certain that boot camp will likely kill whatever affection that she had for math. I have no idea how effective boot camp is with helping kids to pass their tests, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it is highly effective at causing students more stress over taking the test. The kids who are chosen for Boot Camp are most likely the students who have performed poorly on these tests before, and they know that they’ve already been targeted as kids who are likely to fail again.
Since I teach in a Middle School, the kids at our school have been taking SOLs since the 3rd grade, when they take FOUR tests. So, the kids who don’t perform well have four or five years of testing failures as evidence of their inability to pass these tests. Since kids aren’t stupid, they don’t still believe that just working harder or better at school will magically make them successful at SOL testing. These students have to give up their opportunity for an elective like art, music or computer science to take an extra math or reading class, like mine. So, they end up with two classes in a subject in which they have a history of failing. The format of these classes is basically just more of the same. Read, read, read and take tests to see how far they’ve come. There is no joy in this work for them or for me. A few kids who have managed to maintain their hope will trust me enough to believe that reading more will improve their scores. Even fewer believe that they will find some joy in reading. So, they face the choice of 1) Working hard and failing or 2) Having fun with their friends and failing. Guess which one they choose. Teachers like me who are required to tell them that all they have to do is work harder or more and in the same way that they always have will somehow produce a completely different result when they take their end of year tests. As a result, I lose all of my credibility and they lose any of their trust that they had left in their schooling.
Guess how their behavior is in Middle School? Well, their experience has told them that they are not successful students, their identities are in upheaval because they’re entering adolescence, they have no safe creative outlets, their every move in school and at home is scrutinized and judged, they have no say over where they go or what they do. How would you act? They are told repeatedly that the reason they need to be told what to do at every turn is because they’re young and as such, don’t really know what they’re doing. Do any of us know what we’re doing? I do about 50% of the time on a good day. Otherwise, I am just making a choice and hoping it all works out.
I keep hoping that the pendulum will swing the other way. Someday our education system might value creativity, taking risks and learning from failure, giving students a say about their lives and their school, and trying new things. Until then, we can only hope that their spirits aren’t crushed before they enter adulthood and are able to finally make decisions for themselves.