SOL challenge: Schools target critical thinking to raise lagging scores

This year marks Charlottesville and Albemarle schools' second attempt to rebound from drops in pass rates on the math Standards of Learning exams, but last week’s report from the Virginia Department of Education show neither division made much progress. Last year, Albemarle's pass rate was 75 percent and Charlottesville's was 69 percent. In order to earn accreditation this year, 75 percent of students must pass the math test.

As the new school year begins, math teachers and instructional coaches are tasked with bolstering scores, but what does it take for a division to recover, and what do our schools plan to do moving forward?

Administered by VDOE, the SOLs list what students should know after completing each grade level. Starting in third grade and continuing through high school, students take end-of-year SOL exams in reading and writing, science, math, and history and social studies.

But after years of both divisions posting high pass rates in math, VDOE made the tests, which students take online, and which high school students must pass to earn graduation credit, harder in the 2010-11 school year.

To increase rigor, the tests included questions that could have multiple correct answers—all of which the student would need to identify to earn credit— and technology-enhanced questions that ask students to solve equations and then complete accompanying graphs, charts, or tables.

These structural changes, Cale Elementary fourth grade math teacher Susie Golden says, are a major challenge, noting the tests’ shift from an emphasis on lower- to higher-order thinking skills.

“Test-taking is a skill, and at this level, you have to teach how you take a test,” Golden says. “When you take the math test, you have to transpose the problem on your paper, then go back on the screen and find the answer, and that was a challenge.”

While selecting multiple correct answers proved difficult for students, Golden says it also requires teachers to design their instructional time accordingly.

“I think it has really made us up our game,” Golden says. “You have to go into problem solving and real-life situations and really increase rigor and thought process….We have to teach them how to approach and take apart the problem.”

But Penny Stearns, a math specialist for Charlottesville City Schools, notes that doing so is easier said than done.

“We still want students to add and subtract the way they’ve always done, but now we want them to be able to apply their understanding of addition and subtraction in multiple situations,” Stearns says. “So it’s not enough to just be able to do operations, we have to know when to do the operations, how to do the operations, and whether it answered the question asked.”

“We have children needing to learn that, but we also have teachers needing to learn the new expectations and [needing] to teach to that level,” Stearns adds. “That’s a very challenging thing to do, to teach to the depth of understanding of our expectations.”

Just as the SOL exams have changed, so has the SOL curriculum that guides classroom instruction.

In February 2010, VDOE released a comparison document showing when specific pieces of content should be taught according to the original 2001 SOLs and the updated 2009 SOLs.

Determining square roots of numbers, for example, has moved from seventh grade to sixth grade, and changes like this, Charlottesville math specialist Jenine Daly says, could translate to a slow rise in test scores, rather than a quick uptick to previous numbers.

“So a lot of the skills and the concepts that might have been taught in the seventh grade might have been moved down to the sixth grade,” Daly says. “So [rising sixth graders] may not have had the same background in the fifth grade that a new group will have to get to that sixth grade test.”

Despite the curriculum and exam changes, both divisions are working to bring math pass rates up by encouraging instruction that requires students to think critically.

At Cale, Golden and her K-5 math colleagues are developing problem-solving strategies for the students.

“We’ve decided that the best way for our kids to succeed is to use higher order thinking skills, so in order to do that, we break that down into strategies,” Golden says. “We get together as a school and we make sure we’re hitting and developing those strategies so our kids, by the time they leave fifth grade, have thinking skills.”

“If we teach at these higher levels that will translate to the test because we’re teaching thinking skills,” she adds.

In Charlottesville, Assistant Superintendent Gertrude Ivory says, math specialists are working closely with teachers to develop new lessons, and the division is focusing on collaborative planning time for teachers to share ideas.

At the elementary level, Daly says, the division has seen success giving students problem-based questions throughout the year. The practice questions give students numerous opportunities to solve a problem and then articulate how they solved it.

Accreditation numbers are expected in mid-September.

“The kids are going to rise to what we expect them to,” Golden says, “and if we keep the bar low they will rise to that.”

“You can’t teach to these tests,” she adds. “They have to become mathematical thinkers.”

Charlottesville Tomorrow is a nonprofit community news platform covering growth, development, public education, and local politics. News about our public schools appears here through a partnership between the Hook and Charlottesville Tomorrow.


I am skeptical. Perhaps these educators don't know about the studies done at various universities (including the University of Nebraska) showing that college students who've been required to take "Critical Thinking" courses show up with lower GPAs than those who did not take such courses. The reason is that these courses help students learn to think better, whereas most numerically scored exams favor students who merely "parrot back." I speak as a long-time teacher of these courses in colleges and universities.

If educators were inclined "to use higher order thinking skills" themselves, then they'd start questioning the detrimental emphasis on state and national tests, and they'd start demanding changes.

Two false claims about public education have circulated for decades. First, critics claim that public schools are in “crisis.” Second, they argue that their brand of “reform” (more testing, more charters, merit pay, vouchers) is critical to “economic competitiveness.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Sandia Report (Journal of Educational Research, May/June, 1993), published in the wake of A Nation at Risk, concluded that:

* "..on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends."

* "youth today [the 1980s] are choosing natural science and engineering degrees at a higher rate than their peers of the 1960s."

* "business leaders surveyed are generally satisfied with the skill levels of their employees, and the problems that do exist do not appear to point to the k-12 education system as a root cause."

* "The student performance data clearly indicate that today's youth are achieving levels of education at least as high as any previous generation."

The common refrain among critics is that their brand of “reform” is necessary to “make America more competitive” in the global economy. Bill Gates says it. Jeb Bush says it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it. The Business Roundtable resurrects the “rising tide of mediocrity” myth of A Nation at Risk, saying (falsely) that ““Since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, it has been increasingly clear that...academic expectations for American students have not been high enough.” Arne Duncan, a pathetic excuse for an educational “leader,” parrots what they say. So too do state and local educators, including many in the area.

However, the U.S. already IS internationally competitive.

The World Economic Forum ranks nations each year on competitiveness. It uses "a highly comprehensive index" of the "many factors" that enable "national economies to achieve sustained economic growth and long-term prosperity."

The U.S. is usually in the top five (if not 1 or 2). When it drops, the WEF doesn’t cite education, but stupid economic decisions and policies.

For example, when the U.S. dropped from 2nd to 4th in 2010-11, four factors were cited by the WEF for the decline: (1) weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, (2) suspect corporate ethics, (3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street’s financial implosion) and (4) unsustainable levels of debt.

Last year (2011-12), major factors cited by the WEF are a “business community” and business leaders who are “critical toward public and private institutions,” a lack of trust in politicians and the political process with a lack of transparency in policy-making, and “a lack of macroeconomic stability” caused by decades of fiscal deficits especially deficits and debt accrued over the last decade that “are likely to weigh heavily on the country’s future growth.” The WEF did NOT cite public schools as being problematic to innovation and competitiveness.

And this year (2012-13) the WEF dropped the U.S. to 7th place, citing problems like “increasing inequality and youth unemployment” and, environmentally, “the United States is among the countries that have ratified the fewest environmental treaties.“ The WEF noted that in the U.S.,”the business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions” and “trust in politicians is not strong.” Political dysfunction has led to “a lack of macroeconomic stability” that “continues to be the country’s greatest area of weakness.”

[Note: data on 2009, from the 2010-1011 competitiveness report can be found here: ]

The problem in American public education is largely one of poverty. The data show it. Indeed, PISA scores (the scores usually cited by public education critics) are quite sensitive to income level. If one disaggregates U.S. scores the problem becomes clearer: the more poverty a school has, the lower its scores (and that's certainly true locally). Alleviating poverty and its pernicious effects, and providing children with high quality environments before they get to school, and following up with health and academic and social policy programs while they are in school, results not only in high-quality education but also in a high-quality citizenry....and in promoting the general welfare of the nation. This is surely not what the "reformers" want. It might – it will – require a cessation to the gaming of the "markets" and the tax system.

Many – if not most - of the current corporate "reformers" worship at the altar of "free" markets. And they do so despite still unfolding market-rigging scandals in the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) – which affects several hundred trillion dollars of assets and loans – and the ISDAfix, which is "a benchmark number used around the world to calculate the prices of interest-rate swaps."

The emerging evidence is that some of the world's biggest banks and trading companies gamed a "market" of some nearly $400 trillion of these trades, and not in favor of the public. And not surprisingly, some of the very same players (corporate and individual "investors") were engaged in both the LIBOR and ISDAfix scandals.

Even more recent disclosures reveal that traders and bankers have rigged the foreign exchange (FX) market, one that involves daily transactions of nearly $ 5 trillion, which is “the biggest in the financial system.” As one analyst noted, this is “the anchor of our entire economic system. Any rigging of the price mechanism leads to a misallocation of capital and is extremely costly to society.”


The corporate “reformers” and the politicians who succor them say not a word about any of this. They pretend none of it has happened, or is occurring presently. Educators, including principals and district superintendents, simply fall in line and recite the "reform" nonsense. And that’s simply unacceptable.

American public education is a necessity is a democratic society. It’s a foundational cornerstone. And it works pretty darned well, in spite of economic policies that have increased poverty and left the national economy highly stratified.

The public education system in a democratic republic is supposed to develop and nurture democratic values and character and citizenship. That’s the foundation of American public schooling; that is its core mission. And that is precisely the kind of genuine reform direction we need.

It’s also one the “reformers” don’t want.

Wow, no one is going to read the book that Democracy wrote above!

Bottom line is we DO need standardized testing to be able to MEASURE not only student performance but also teacher performance. There are too many "dead wood" teachers. Teacher unions make the situation much worse because the schools can't fire bad teachers just waiting for retirement. We need more young and energetic teachers who care.

Some older teachers do care, but I've seen far too many who just want to retire in place.

As a parent, I can say this - these tests are nothing but anxiety causing to the students. Our educational system needs total revamping and Standard Testing is one thing that needs to go out the window. There are too many - far too many who are teaching to the test. There is a nationwide movement among parents to keep their children home when these tests are given. It is also astounding to see how the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD increase the farther East one is in the US - because Standardize Tests increase the farther East.

@ Brad: Suppose a teacher had a classroom of students like you, who have no desire to read and learn?

But beyond the obvious, the fact is that merit pay doesn't work, and that's especially true in education.

Recently, for example, the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University completed a "scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States." Teachers were eligible for bonuses of up to $15,000, based on student test scores. The researchers concluded that there was "no significant difference between the test results from classes led by teachers eligible for bonuses and those led by teachers who were ineligible." The director of the study said this about merit pay: "it doesn't work."

You can access the study here:

In New York City, where a $75 million merit pay plan was was touted as the need elixir to "fix" schools, it didn't pan out that way. Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who conducted the study, concluded that “If anything, student achievement declined.” And this was a pretty big study that targeted "200 high-need schools and 20,000 teachers between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 school years."

Merit pay is a simplistic notion that doesn't hold up under scrutiny. As Stanford University business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer told Congress in his March, 2007 testimony on performance pay, "the idea that individual pay for performance will enhance organizational operations rests on a set of assumptions. Once those assumptions are spelled out and confronted with the evidence, it is clear that many—maybe all—do not hold in most organizations." If you want other, tangible, evidence, just consider the problems – and the damage – that "merit" pay caused in the mortgage and financial crises.

Pfeffer notes that high-performance cultures can be created and sustained. Doing so requires professional training and development, and promoting from within. It requires "an egalitarian culture" that diminishes internal "status distinctions" and differences in salaries. It means creating an environment "in which people feel as if their contributions are important and valued." It means shared decision making. And it means high pay, "employment security, and mutual commitment." All of these enhance motivation and job performance.

It's too bad that so many school divisions (including those locally) are not led by people who grasp these essential understandings.

Hey Democracy, you can try to attack all you want. The fact remains that no one wants to read your ridiculously long posts. Of course there are a number of teachers who don't want merit pay because it would negatively effect them.

The fact is people need to be measured and held accountable. Unions don't want that. Unions are ruining this country.

Brad- you have no idea what you're talking about- teachers absolutely can be fired via contract renewal not being extended and it happens all the time in Cville City Schools. Also, these necessary standardized tests you love are different every year- look at district averages go up and down in unison across the state from year to year. The VA DOE sets a different "cut score" each year for these tests (i've been on cut score committees) and the results are highly predictable before the first student takes the test.

Poor Brad. He hasn't been paying attention. He hasn't done his homework.

He makes the ridiculous assertion that "Unions are ruining this country."

Only 11.3 percent of workers are unionized. Those in unions make an average of $943 a week , (non-unionized workers make about $750 a week). These are hardly BIG wages. So, how exactly, are unions responsible for "ruining" the country?

Did unions shower supply-side tax cuts on corporations and the rich? Did unions promise balanced budgets, but run up huge budget and trade deficits instead while piling up enormous debt? [Union workers did support Bill Clinton, who did, in fact, deliver balanced budgets and budgetary surpluses.] Did unions ignore dire warnings of terrorist threats in the summer of 2001, while focusing on more tax cuts for big business and the wealthy? Did unions manufacture and manipulate "intelligence" to start a war against Iraq over mythical weapons of mass destruction, and then refuse to pay for it? Did unions create the mortgage and financial crises? Did unions run wild on Wall Street, selling collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other exotic securities that were designed to fail? Did unions bail out the bankers and hedge funders who caused the Great Recession?

Brad's been a very poor student of recent history. He should put on his dunce cap, and go and sit for a long while in the corner.

And no dessert either.

Brad, what is "ruining this country" and what has been ruining it more and more for a little over a century is the growth of massive, bureaucratic organizations and their centralizing and controlling mentality. This includes its obsession with "counting" and "measuring." It is bureaucratic control run amok dressed up in puerile Neoliberal tripe about efficiency and accountability.

If you'd like better teachers and better education then the last thing you would do is support SOLs. The only way anyone could seriously support them is if they are not anywhere near the actual world where people attempt to educate other people. They don't - and won't ever - be able to measure the quality of teaching and learning. They are nothing more than bureaucratic control measures.

"As the new school year begins, math teachers and instructional coaches are tasked with bolstering scores. . ."

As opposed to students actually learning anything.

People like poor, uneducated "Democracy" should look at the facts instead of making up assertions. Too many teachers are poor educators. They need to be measured as well as their students. Unlike Democracy and WTH? believe, this country was made successful by competition. There are going to be winners and losers and we need measurements to determine the winners and loser and where to improve.

I suspect Democracy was probably one of those poor little kids (or maybe still is) who was horrible at soccer or whatever sport she played. But she still wanted a trophy anyway because "everyone should get a trophy". Poor thing.

Brad, I concur with those who have stated that you don't know anything about this issue. You are merely spouting right-wing talking points. "This country was made successful by competition"--right. You clearly don't know anything about the history of our "free market."

No one is arguing about the need for tests to assess student progress. The issue is that school curricula are becoming increasingly narrow and focused solely on the SOLs. Failing schools are invariably the poorest schools; the way we fund public education (based on property tax payments) is deplorable and unlike any other country.

And regarding your demonization of teachers, I'd like to see you try to do what they do every day. It's an exhausting, thankless job, and I'm glad some people are willing to step forward to do it.

If kids today are less literate than their parents, blame the parents for not making them turn off those stupid electronic devices and pick up a book.

Well said all around Dawg.

BigBird- great points. Also, the local teachers' union here in Virginia gives members absolutely zero protection from losing their jobs. There is no tenure. So, Brad, if you live in Virginia, you should be happy that the state does weed out those who are not up to par, unlike states with more powerful unions like PA and NY.

Part 1

If you want to see just how goofy public education “leadership” has become, read this piece in the Daily Progress.

In the article, Norm Augustine is portrayed as some kind of education expert. He's not. Augustine is one of those who pushes very hard for a corporate-style –– and corporate friendly –– "reform" agenda based on the notion that American "competitiveness" is dependent on "improving" public education. Yet, the dim-bulb brain trust in Albemarle County schools invited Augustine to visit and share his “expertise.” And in turn, Augustine praises the county schools “leadership” for focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, calling it vital to the “future of our economy.” Let’s examine more closely.

As CEO at Martin Marietta, Augustine brokered the merger of that company with Lockheed to produce Lockheed Martin and got taxpayers to subsidize nearly a billion dollars of the merger cost, including tens of millions in bonuses for executives (Augustine netted over $8 million). And then the merged company laid off thousands of workers. The promised efficiencies and cost savings to the government (and taxpayers) have yet to materialize.

Lockheed Martin is is now the largest of the big defense contractors, yet its government contracts are hardly limited to weapons systems. While Lockheed has broadened its services, it is dependent on the government and the taxpayers for its profits. It's also #1 on the " 'contractor misconduct' database" which tracks contract abuse and misconduct. Meanwhile, while Norm Augustine touts the need for more STEM graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and STEM teachers for public schools, Lockheed is laying off thousands of engineers. Research studies show there is no STEM shortage, but Augustine says (absurdly) that it’s critical to American economic “competitiveness.”

A 2004 RAND study “found no consistent and convincing evidence that the federal government faces current or impending shortages of STEM workers...there is little evidence of such shortages in the past decade or on the horizon.” The RAND study concluded “if the number of STEM positions or their attractiveness is not also increasing” –– and both are not –– then “measures to increase the number of STEM workers may create surpluses, manifested in unemployment and underemployment.”

A 2007 study by Lowell and Salzman found no STEM shortage (see: ). Indeed, Lowell and Salzman found that “the supply of S&E-qualified graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally. Further, the number of undergraduates completing S&E studies has grown, and the number of S&E graduates remains high by historical standards.” The “education system produces qualified graduates far in excess of demand.”

Lowell and Salzman concluded that “purported labor market shortages for scientists and engineers are anecdotal and also not supported by the available evidence...The assumption that difficulties in hiring is just due to supply can have counterproductive consequences: an increase in supply that leads to high unemployment, lowered wages, and decline in working conditions will have the long-term effect of weakening future supply.” Lowell and Salzman noted that “available evidence indicates an ample supply of students whose preparation and performance has been increasing over the past decades.”

Part 2

Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote this stunning statement recently in the Columbia Journalism Review (see: ):

“Leading experts on the STEM workforce, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.”

So why the STEM emphasis by the likes of Bill Gates and Norm Augustine? Benderly continues:

“Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.”

Benderly reports that an engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology told a Congressional committee last summer this:

“Contrary to some of the discussion here this morning, the STEM job market is mired in a jobs recession…with unemployment rates…two to three times what we would expect at full employment….Loopholes have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers with ordinary skills…to directly substitute for, rather than complement, American workers. The programs are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to American workers.”

Norm Augustine is a charlatan of the first order, But the county school superintendent thanked him for visiting and sharing his “vision.” And then she reaffirmed “her dedication” to focusing on STEM, which goes under the moniker of “21st-century education.”

As I've noted any number of times, the World Economic Forum evaluates and ranks countries on economic competitiveness each year. The U.S. was typically ranked 1st or 2nd each year, but recently has started to slide down; it dropped to 4th last year (2010-11) and to 5th this year (2011-12).

When the U.S. dropped from 2nd to 4th in 2010-11, four factors were cited by the WEF for the decline: (1) weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, (2) weak (poor) corporate ethics, (3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street's financial implosion) and (4) unsustainable levels of debt.

More recently, major factors cited by the WEF are a "business community" and business leaders who are "critical toward public and private institutions," a lack of trust in politicians and the political process with a lack of transparency in policy-making, and "a lack of macroeconomic stability" caused by decades of fiscal deficits, especially deficits and debt accrued over the last decade that "are likely to weigh heavily on the country’s future growth."

It's interesting that the WEF cites the top economic competitors –– those ranking higher than the U.S. –– for efficiency, trust, transparency, ethical behavior, and honesty. Corporate "reformers" like Norm Augustine seem to take absolutely no notice.

Apparently, neither do those who “lead” public school divisions.

@ "Democracy," Your detractor "Brad" is something of a tool. but he is right about your posts. If you expect anyone to actually read what you write here, you need to learn to edit for clarity and brevity.

Democracy's posts are pretty well written and clear for something posted in a comments section. I'd rather read his/her posts than the argle-bargle that passes for the written word on most comment boards.

Thanks, Dawg.

@ stronger than darn: sometimes brevity (shortness) diminishes clarity.

Dawg, a response to "And regarding your demonization of teachers, I'd like to see you try to do what they do every day." You underestimate me, perhaps I have and I do. You shouldn't assume anything.