From Virginia: Raise children, not test scores: How parents organized to reform the Virginia Standards of Learning exams

Education reform today is being increasingly defined as the imposition of "standards" from afar followed simultaneously by standardized multiple choice tests that carry consequences for failure to children, schools, teachers and communities. These tests are referred to as "high stakes" tests.

 

As this "education reform" rises up in state after state, so also do networks of parents who are beginning campaigns of resistance. These organizing efforts are formed for a variety of reasons.

 

This is primarily the story of the rise of parent network in Virginia.

 

In March, 1998, in Virginia, six mothers met at Lynchburg College to explore the possibility of forming an organization to address parental concerns with Virginia's system of accountability - the Standards of Learning and the SOL tests. These mothers represented their various children, all of whom were losing out on a quality education because of the one-size-fits-all standards and high stakes tests. Their children were varied: children who did well at school, children who struggled, children with disabilities, children labeled gifted, children who took tests in stride and children who were afraid.

 

At that first meeting, the parents chose the name "Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs" (PAVURSOL) to reflect their desire not to eliminate the Standards of Learning and the SOL tests but to eliminate their use as the ultimate measure of student achievement and school quality. The parents at the meeting did not define a quality education and accountability for that education by the rising and falling of SOL test scores. They wanted an education system of high quality curricula and instruction designed to meet all children's diverse abilities, needs, and interests, better teacher training and opportunities for systematic professional development, use of best practices (not limited to how to teach SOL content and coach children for tests), smaller classes and schools, up-to-date facilities and materials, equitable funding, and educational policy based on sound research, not just politics.

PAVURSOL's main purposes were determined to be:

 

Testing: to create public, particularly parental, awareness of appropriate uses and limitations of standardized tests, the negative effects of the use of standardized testing for high stakes, and the existence of better alternatives for assessment and educational accountability.

 

Standards: to create public, particularly parental, awareness of appropriate uses and limitations of a single defined set of standards which all students should know and be able to do.

 

Speaking up to effect policy: to become a vehicle through which parents could speak with one voice and convey their concerns to appropriate officials at all levels.

 

Forming a coalition of voices: to encourage groups that were concerned with educational quality to join the actions of PAVURSOL to ensure high quality education for all students.

 

How parents have organized

 

Providing information to other parents and the public

 

The PAVURSOL network began to grow quickly as word-of-mouth spread information about the existence of the group. Using primarily e-mail (there is also a monthly mailed newsletter for those without internet access), the group began to gather information to be better informed on the issues themselves, to share information and to talk with parents in various communities around the state about their concerns, and to develop some ideas for advocacy and legislative action.

 

Early on, the group developed some materials to share with other parents and the public that clearly stated their concerns about what was happening in their schools. (See Box 1 for one such document - "The Truth About the SOLS.") These materials were distributed at forums and public meetings around the state whenever the discussion centered around the Virginia Accountability Program. Additionally, materials were made available at PTA meetings, including state, regional, and local levels. Parents in the PAVURSOL network shared the information in their informal networks as the PAVURSOL membership started to climb rapidly.

 

As membership in the PAVURSOL network grew, members filled several needs as we attempted to establish our presence around the state:

 

1. being present at every state level meeting that dealt with SOLs. These meetings primarily occurred in Richmond, the state capital. Being at these meetings allowed parents to get a better description of what was happening within the Accountability Program without the filter of the Board of Education spin and the media.

 

2. identifying media watchers in each community to keep an eye on the media slant in each community. It was important to determine in which communities the media was perceived to be "friendly" as those media outlets tended to take different materials from PAVURSOL for publication. Those media outlets that tended to oppose the PAVURSOL viewpoint needed more educating.

 

3. sending letters to the editor about either an issue they had reported on in their paper or to let folks know about PAVURSOL. A pool of willing and able letter writers, as well as parents who were willing to write opinion pieces were identified so that it would be easier to tap into them as the need developed.

 

4. helping members to develop testimony for public hearings as well as developing testimony for the organization. Initially, public hearings were more frequent. Lately, though, there have been very few hearings.

 

5. signing up parents for PAVURSOL at various public hearings. Knowing that vocal parents were likely to show up at hearings (particularly if we were able to get the word out in communities that such a hearing would be taking place), representatives from PAVURSOL attended each hearing in order to share PAVURSOL information and to sign folks up to the PAVURSOL network. Official statements from PAVURSOL were also developed to be read into the hearing records as well.

 

6. speaking at and organizing forums, panels, and meetings in local communities. Parents in various communities organized forums, panels and meetings in their communities to allow PAVURSOL an opportunity to explain the limitations of the SOL tests. Materials were also distributed to be shared widely in a community after the forum.

 

7. establishing a web presence. As the group began to develop, one parent offered to set up a website. This website was very useful in getting the word out so a more sophisticated website was then developed. Additionally, several members of PAVURSOL set up their own web sites to further create opportunities to educate the public about what was happening because of the misuse of the SOL test results.

 

8. identifying a small group of parents who would help lead PAVURSOL. As the network became larger and the strategies required became more diverse, it was important to identify other parents who could take a lead role in the network. Parents who had been active in setting up community forums, contacting media, or who had been particularly involved by e-mail were invited to assist in leading PAVURSOL. This committee of about 20 parents communicates mostly be e-mail although there have been a few face-to-face meetings.

 

Providing information to legislators

Because PAVURSOL felt that legislative relief was going to be necessary, it became important to begin to educate legislators about the problems with Virginia's SOL program. The Board of Education's message had to be countered and brief PAVURSOL sound bites in all too often unfriendly media were not going to be sufficient.

 

In the months preceding the 1999 General Assembly session, twelve packets of information were developed that expanded on various educational issues and which had been identified as areas where legislators may need more information in order to make more informed decisions. These packets were mailed, generally by constituents, to each legislator once a week during the three months prior to the beginning of the 1999 session. Many legislators responded positively asking for further information on some of the topics. (See Box 2 for a list of topics covered in these packets.)