New Language Arts SOL Tests To Emphasize Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

| September 18, 2012 | 0 Comments | Education

In the coming months, Virginia students will take revised Reading and Writing SOL tests. Prince William County Supervisor of Language Arts Roberta Apostolakis applauds the change of assessment and curriculum.

“I’m kind of excited about the new assessment. It allows our students to apply the critical thinking that we are instructing them with,” said Apostolakis.

Virginia is in the process of revising its standardized tests once used to evaluate student progress in accordance with Federal No Child Left Behind  from which Virginia has recently received a waiver. This includes revisions to the traditional language arts assessments to encourage more development of higher-level thinking skills.

Assessing critical thinking and the synthesis of information has proven more difficult than assessing fact-based knowledge or the simple demonstration of recall and comprehension of material, and in the past the SOL tests have been criticized for not demanding that kind of higher-level learning from Virginia students.

Likewise “teaching to the test,” has always been a criticism, as everyone from parents to educators question the value behind the material being assessed on the SOLs, which sets the bar low in comparison to more rigorous school entrance exams.

This school year, Virginia students will take a new SOL reading and writing tests, which have been aligned with new curriculum standards to reflect those set forth on the federal level.

With new standardized tests comes new instruction, and language arts teachers in Prince William County will now be encouraged to plan lessons that prepare students to think more critically. According to Apostolakis, it will also free up teachers to incorporate more analytical lessons.

“New standards go to a different level of critical thinking, really getting students to synthesize information, argue and debate perhaps, building higher-level critical thinking skills,” Apostolakis said.

Apostolakis believes the new SOLs are a better match with the way most professionals prefer to teach language arts anyway, and that teachers want to challenge and provide their students with opportunities to think, evaluate and create.

Moreover, Apostolakis believes these new skills will prepare children for college and the career world, and even more importantly, she hopes it teaches them how to communicate more effectively.

“I’ve always believed that language arts, whether its kindergarten to 12th grade, fosters opportunities for students to articulate their thoughts,” said Apostolakis.

Chief among these communications skills is the ability to articulate through writing, and like the Reading SOL, the Writing SOL has also been revised.

No longer will SOL essays be assessed primarily on format. While middle and high schools have traditionally formulated their instruction around the standard five-paragraph essay, that is all changing this year.

Apostolakis said they are moving away from emphasizing form towards teaching students to craft their form in response to their purpose, audience, and voice.

“It doesn’t matter if it is a three-paragraph essay or a ten-paragraph essay. What they are stressing is the writing around the mode: persuasive, expository or narrative.”

She does admit that the new tests will be more rigorous, but believes the rigor is appropriate. If parents see a dip in scores, as they did when the math tests were revised, she suggests they consider the nature of the new tests.

“Whatever way the scores go it will help inform what we are strong in and where we need to develop more lessons for our students and support our teachers as well.”

However, one criticism of the new tests is that the Virginia Department of Education has not provided teachers with sample testing materials. Previously teachers had access to released tests from previous years to help their students become familiar with test items.

This is one obstacle that may impede students from achieving high scores during the first year the assessments are given. However, there are other variable that make the tests more challenging as well, such as the fact that they will now be completely administered on the computer, and like the math SOLs, some questions will require students to find multiple answers to single questions.

The new Language Arts SOLs are also more interactive, asking students to highlight or move around text on the screen. This may be intuitive for today’s tech-savvy students, but it is a shift from the familiar multiple-choice model.

Although school districts do not have all the information they would like about the new test, Prince William Public Schools is taking a proactive approach to training their teachers for the new curriculum.

Apostolakis has been meeting with department chairs, providing seminars and discussing with department chairs methods for addressing the new assessment. Her expectation is that those teacher leaders will then instruct their teachers. Apostolakis said she prefers this method because it allows every school to have a resident expert on the tests in every building.

She is also looking for opportunities for teachers to create their own opportunities for professional development, meeting with their colleagues to discuss reading that could inform their curriculum.

Although education in Virginia is undergoing a transformation, she hopes parents will see value in a curriculum that pushes high-level learning skills like application, synthesis, analysis and evaluation to the forefront, and that they will be patient as the curriculum and tests change.

© 2012, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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