Most everyone agrees that students are more excited and engaged in school when they see meaning and relevance in their work. Great teachers challenge their students to think creatively and critically by sharing context for the learning perhaps a bigger problem, a real world application, or other example that demonstrates how the content students are learning is useful. After all, what good is content if it does not open doors for students to explore new ideas, to make connections to prior learning, and to help them better understand themselves and the world around them?
Assessment is an integral part of the learning process. Many people think of assessment as cumulative tests. (Actually assessment is much more than that a topic for another time.) In recent years those assessments have been in the form of multiple choice tests. In Virginia, those tests are the highstakes Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that are administered to students in content areas upon completion of certain courses of study.
In 2014 the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 930 and Senate Bill 306. These bills changed the SOL testing program in Virginia schools by eliminating the multiple choice tests in third-grade science, third-grade social studies, fifth-grade writing, U.S. History to 1865 (5th grade) and U. S. History 1865 to present (6th grade). In place of the multiple choice tests, the new regulations require school divisions to administer an alternative assessment. The law further specifies that the assessment should be an age appropriate, authentic performance assessment. The law also encourages integrated assessments that include multiple subject areas. In summary, the law charges educators with assessing students in a manner that is more like “real life”, similar to the type of meaningful learning described in the first paragraph.
Beginning in late fall of 2014 and continuing this school year, Salem teachers developed authentic assessments for the eliminated SOL tests and administered those to students. Teachers continue to meet on a regular basis to review student results, to revise the assessments as needed, and to investigate other authentic assessment opportunities.
Salem is also closely monitoring the work of the SOL Innovation Committee, a state committee whose role is to advise the General Assembly and the Virginia Department of Education on ways to provide more meaningful assessment of student progress, to identify other measures that are indicators of school success, and to promote excellent instructional practices throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our Superintendent, Dr. H. Alan Seibert, serves as a key leader on the SOL Innovation Committee, and he keeps us up to date on the committee work and how we can implement their recommendations to benefit the children of Salem.
It is an exciting time for education in Salem and in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The resurgence of a focus on authentic, real life, often content integrated learning is not confined to assessments for eliminated SOL tests. Teachers are providing instruction for students that reflects the greater emphasis on authenticity, meaning, relevance, and application. Teachers are emphasizing learning experiences where students are able to monitor their own progress, where mistakes along the learning progression are springboards to deeper learning, and where students have opportunities to collaborate and share their understanding. This focus on meaningful, deeper learning fits well with Salem’s long term emphasis on Assessment for Learning, standards-based learning, and performance-based learning and assessment.
To support teachers as they shift their assessment practices to more authentic tasks, the Virginia Department of Education has provided funding to support training in each region. The fifteen school divisions in Region VI are working together to provide support and training to teachers and to develop a repository of sample authentic assessment tasks. Salem will host about 30 teachers from Region VI schools for two weekends in February and March to continue this work. On April 9, 2016 Region VI will hold an Assessment Summit at Salem High School from 9:00 am until 1:00 pm for all educators in the area to learn more about the many innovative strategies for assessment and instruction being used throughout the region. Several members of the SOL Innovation Committee will participate in the Assessment Summit as presenters and panel members.
In summary, assessment and learning are undergoing important changes in Virginia. The emphasis on authenticity, meaningfulness, and relevance permeates all aspects of instruction. Today’s students are learning in a global, changing world with quick and easy access to information. The skills that they use now and will use in the future require collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Salem and other school divisions across Virginia are working together to assure that students are ready for their future!