A common criticism of standardized testing is that it requires teachers and students to spend so much time preparing for tests that other aspects of a well-rounded education get neglected. And many a teacher will tell you that there's more to learning than just memorizing facts and figures.
And so a pair of bills in the Virginia House of Delegates aims to limit the number of Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests for students in the commonwealth.
State Del. Rob Krupicka, an Alexandria Democrat whose district includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties, has said that with 34 standardized tests and their associated practice tests, Virginia's public schools have become "testing sweat shops."
Krupicka has filed a bill that would eliminate four science and social studies SOL tests in elementary and middle school and replace them with what's known as authentic and project-based assessments. Schools would have the option of replacing high school science and social studies SOLs with such assessments, too.
"The idea is to make sure we're still paying attention to these content areas, just doing it with much more creative, innovative tools as opposed to an end-of-year, drill-and-kill approach," he told Patch.
"We don't want to suddenly say to our school districts, 'Stop teaching science and social studies.' "
On a traditional test, for example, a student might be asked to look at a black-and-white photograph depicting children working in mills and then answer a multiple choice question about which sentence best describes that photo.
Under an authentic assessment, the student would be given a scenario, such as working on a farm in 1910, and then be asked to write an essay or give a speech on whether they should continue working on the farm or move to the city to work in a factory. The student would have to use material from their studies to justify his or her answer.
Supporters of authentic assessments say that approach allows children to think more comprehensively, and more critically, about what they've learned.
But the current educational environment in Virginia leaves little time for that, Krupicka said. His proposal would require the state Board of Education to develop standards for authentic assessments but then leave to local school systems how best to implement, grade and track them.
Virginia Commonwealth University's Commonwealth Education Poll, which was released earlier this month, found that 75 percent of Virginians believed that preparing for SOLs means teachers can't cover all the material they need to, and 63 percent of respondents agreed that SOLs put too much pressure on students.
But 62 percent and 55 percent of Virginians, respectively, felt that SOLs help hold schools accountable and make sure students meet the same academic standards.
House Republicans announced last week that reducing the number of SOL exams from 34 to 26 was a key part of their education agenda.
Del. Tag Greason, a Loudoun County Republican who is chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee, wants teachers and students to develop "critical thinking, problem solving and (to apply) the knowledge that we learn in the classroom," according to the Roanoke Times.
Greason has authored the Republican effort to ax eight SOL tests.
The Republican bill doesn't build in the accountability component for getting rid of select social studies and science tests that authentic assessments provide, but it does build in a process for updating other tests, Krupicka said.
Lawmakers will hold a hearing on SOLs next week in Richmond and will then spend some time drafting a single, combined bill, he said.
"The idea is to meld all these things together," Krupicka said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe often talked about reforming the state SOL tests on the campaign trail last year.
"It's good if a child knows the date we landed on the moon," he said at a May campaign event in Arlington. "But it's much better if the child knows about the Space Race, NASA and the Apollo Program."
Do you think students spend too much time preparing for and taking standardized tests? What do you think of authentic assessments? Tell us in the comments below.