Schools turn to positivity during state tests

In the coming weeks, thousands of students in Charlottesville–Albemarle will take Standards of Learning exams.

Recently, both school divisions have decried the accountability measure, arguing that standardized testing causes stress and fails to provide a full picture of student learning. However, despite that position, schools are beginning to combat the anxiety of testing with the power of positive thinking.

“Honestly, the mood that they’re in that day very much effects how they will do,” said Janene Shearburn, an Algebra I and AVID teacher at Albemarle High School. “So even though we might not like it, we as adults have to stay positive for them to give them the best shot that they can have.”

Between 3rd and 12th grade, some students have taken as many as 34 SOL tests. Thanks to changes made at the state level, that number will soon be dropping to 26. While both school divisions applauded the reduction, and while many students take only a few SOL tests per year, school staff says the impact the nearly month-long testing window has on individual school buildings is noticeable.

“I do see the malaise set in every year around April,” said Matt Shields, a Physics Teacher at Charlottesville High School. “I see our schools get turned upside down for testing.”

“A library might be used as a testing room, and that means kids can’t access the library during certain hours of the day because testing is going on,” said Matt Caduff, an Albemarle County teacher, noting that staff are shuffled around to assist with testing, which limits the services a school building normally provides.

“It’s a pretty high-stress time, so teachers tend to be on edge,” Caduff added. “A school can feel different.”

To resist these changes overtaking the learning environment, many schools are taking steps to keep morale high. Recently, Sutherland Middle School held a series of meetings for families to reinforce test-taking and stress-reduction strategies. Last week, Walker Upper Elementary School held a pep rally to keep spirits up.

“We wanted to celebrate the students’ hard work throughout the year,” said Walker Principal Vernon Bock. “They’ve learned a lot, and they should be proud of that accomplishment.”

Some teachers, however, think the celebrations—especially in the elementary and middle grades when scores don’t impact a student passing—sends the wrong message.

“We do all these things around the test and then out of the other side of our mouths we say ‘This isn’t a big deal, kids, just do your best,’” Caduff said, citing pizza parties and special SOL snacks.

“I feel like we make a really big deal out of these tests,” Caduff added. “Kids are confused by that mixed message.”

Shields said it’s important not to overemphasize the tests.

“I’m not saying that we have to ignore it or grumble about it, I think we have to embrace it,” Shields said. “But I also think it’s important that we don’t make it why we’re here.”

Shields doesn’t teach SOL courses, but he does teach AP Physics. Shields said he’s open with his students throughout the year that they will have to pass the AP test in order to earn college credit, and he likens the experience to a 5 kilometer cross country race.

“If you knew you had a 5k coming up, you’re probably going to want to do some things specific to help train for that,” Shields said. “But I don’t think that most coaches or fitness professionals will say that the reason you’re doing this is to do well in the 5k.”

“The 5k is just a measure along the way, and really you’re in it for personal fitness and personal betterment,” Shields added.

Bock agreed, and said the school “almost didn’t call it an SOL pep rally.”

“The event was not so much about one test, but about acknowledging the students’ hard work and keeping their momentum moving for the rest of the year,” Bock said.

Bernard Hairston, Albemarle’s Executive Director of Community Engagement and a former principal, said attitude is the name of the game.

“It’s the attitude with which you embrace the standards, and the attitude with which you embrace the content that’s being taught, and also reinforcing it in a way where it’s positive learning,” Hairston said.

“If you have a teacher who is saying ‘We have to do this with these Standards of Learning,’ that message is shared with the kids, and so by the time they have that testing day, the kids are tensed about it,” Hairston added.

Hairston chalks the negative perception of the SOLs to its roll out, arguing that emphasizing pass rates set up structures “where we were basically teaching to the test.”

“We missed the boat when we stopped talking about…how you teach it to them to impact learning,” Hairston said, adding that a lack of professional development for the teachers has added to the feelings of resistance.

“Any time you roll out an assessment program, you’ve got to have buy in,” Hairston added. “We don’t do a very good job of getting buy in on any assessments coming from the state level or the national level, and that’s why we have so many problems.”

Regardless of the larger systems at play, Albemarle High School’s Shearburn said she tries to remain mindful of the students’ needs as May approaches.

“From a kid’s perspective, I’m probably known for pushing, wanting more, telling them to work harder,” Shearburn said. “This month I definitely start the cheerleader mode. I’m just trying to keep them motivated.”