The Weakly Standards

When standards of learning (SOLs) first appeared in my Northern Virginia public-school classroom nearly seven years ago, they were hardly more than a lunch-table punch line -- another unfortunate abbreviation coined by board-of-education bureaucrats to browbeat our low-achieving, high-minority school. SOLs constituted a body of knowledge that students would learn in each academic subject. The initials became the sobriquet for both the curriculum and a test that, after a phase-in period of six years, kids would have to pass in core subjects by 2003 in order to graduate. Sometime after that, the state promised, schools' accreditations would be at stake.

Along with 97 percent of those tested in Virginia, our school failed that first year. The old guard didn't panic: SOLs, too, shall pass, they assured us, just like the "open" classrooms of the 1970s and -- I raised my eyebrows here -- multiculturalism.

Turns out, SOLs didn't go away. What started as a solution to improve schools became the basis for a long-running educational Red Scare. Virginia's get-tough test reflected a national trend toward standards spawned by the sky-is-falling 1983 report "A Nation at Risk." Today, SOLs are being used to satisfy that report's successor, the No Child Left Behind policy of George W. Bush.

I began teaching in one of these perennially low-scoring schools in 1993, three years before SOLs. I taught learning-disabled kids, then English as a second language (ESL), then "regular" classes and eventually in an International Baccalaureate program. I can trace my evolution -- from a creative young teacher to one straightjacketed by SOLs -- through the strata of marbled composition books stacked in my shed. The first notebook records my efforts with learning-disabled kids who weren't much for reading the history of American westward expansion. Crude sketches bring back the eureka moment when we went outside to the baseball infield, tacked chicken wire on plywood and piled on some sod, making pretty good replicas of 19th-century prairie dwellings. Presto. My nonreaders were transported somewhere their history books could never take them.

In spring 1995, I was teaching ninth-grade ESL students to write business letters. Instead of "Dear Sir or Madam" practice letters, we wrote to embassies asking for flags that represented our class' diversity. Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia were the first to oblige. The apex came at an end-of-year assembly, at which 58 flags, each born by a native, were marched into the field house to the strains of a xylophone and the student body's enthusiastic applause.

By 1997, Gov. George Allen (R-Va.) had drawn up plays for SOLs. Our hard-won flags hung limp in the school library, but I was still trying to focus on kids, not scores. By winter 2003, the SOLs had won. From Jan. 10 is a "writing" assignment where kids sketched icons to represent each "feature" -- central idea, organization, unity -- within three categories on which their SOL compositions would be graded. The features themselves made perfect sense. What didn't was the shortcut method of instilling them. "Unity" holds little meaning for a writer who hasn't wrestled to achieve it over more than a couple of quick practice tests. And ever more frequent SOL "reviews" consisting of multiple-choice questions had all but wiped out the in-class writing that had been the basis of my class.

From Jan. 23, there is a page of questions from an SOL practice test. In this one, an apocryphal Karl had been studying the Roaring '20s and needed to write an essay on the Harlem Renaissance. The tests asks, "Which sentence best begins his paper?" and the kids choose from a few prefab options instead of writing their own. Ironically, Karl's paper would never have existed in our own class: The kids told me their history teacher had "skipped" the 1920s because that decade wasn't an SOL item.

Finally, at the end of last year, I decided that if SOLs weren't leaving, I was. After a decade of teaching, I took a post in a private school. Fans of standards might argue that my evolution from a neophyte desperate to reach kids to a seasoned professional harnessing his creativity in the service of a more disciplined curriculum is exactly the desired result. Indeed, I am pleased that 96 percent of my students last year passed the SOL test. Our kids didn't get smarter, over the past seven years. But my colleagues and I did. We're crackerjack now at teaching to that test.

What I am even more pleased about, though, is that this year at my new school, 100 percent of my students won't have to take SOLs. And I can't wait for spring: When we study the Chesapeake Bay, we'll be building canoes. My greatest regret is that the students I left behind don't have the luxury of opting out of the high-stakes tests, too.