Adventures in SOLs
First, let me say I hate standardized testing. It hasn’t turned out to be the cure-all for education that people envisioned. In Virginia, the standardized tests are called SOLs – I kid you not. No, SOL does not mean what you think. It stands for Standards of Learning. Not one good teacher actually thinks they are helpful – mostly they are considered to be a cruel slap in the face to true learning. Students only learn how to take a standardized test – not think. They must be taught only what is on the test and when they get to college they lack study skills and desire to learn. Students feel the instructor should only present them with what’s going to be on the exam. So in other words, students are taught to memorize certain facts which are then easily discarded as soon as the test is over. Learning to actually think has now become the sole job of higher education.
Having said my piece about the sad content of SOLs I will now tell you about Matt’s adventures in standardized testing. They start testing early on – in elementary school. Matt took each standardized test along with his classmates. They made him a wreck. He couldn’t sleep and cried and begged not to go to school. Yet, year after tortuous year he passed each exam. Matt has a great memory for facts. SOLs do not require any thinking skills – just the ability to memorizeand Matt could memorize just fine. Matt did well in each subject; Math, History, Science, Reading. English was Matt’s worst subject. Of course! He is autistic and autism is a communication disorder. English is how we communicate. It was fully expected that he would have difficulty in written communication. Matt’s writing skills improved each year, but let’s face it, he wasn’t a great writer – he’s autistic. He never saw the need for the little words; it, is, of, at, the, etc. Leaving out the little “useless” words always affected his grade. The only class Matt ever took in High School where he didn’t make an “A” was English – he got a“B”. He could read, he could do his homework and he could write- albeit, not as perfect as we would like, but well enough to make a point and demonstrate knowledge.
To graduate with a regular diploma, Matt needed to pass all of his SOLs – including English. The English SOL has 2 parts; one covers the parts of speech, spelling and grammar –which is multiple-choice, and the other one covers actual writing skills –students are given a writing-prompt and instructed to write several paragraphs on the subject. Matt flew through the multiple choice with no problems. He made an excellent score on that half of the test. His writing, however, was not very good (those pesky little useless words!). The overall score is an average of the two tests together. A student needs a 400 to pass. Matt received a score of 378. This was in his junior year of highschool. He could re-take the test again in his senior year.
You can bet it was an intense meeting of the minds that spring as we came together for Matt’s last IEP. Some were convinced he would not pass and started throwing around the idea of a Certificate of Attendance in lieu of a Regular Diploma – it didn’t go over well with me. I immediately took that idea off the table. Matt had not worked that hard, received all those excellent grades, repeatedly made the honor-roll year after year to end up with a lousy Certificate. Once that was cleared up we began to construct an IEP that focused heavily on Matt’s writing skills.
Test time came all too soon in the fall of his senior year. His score for his second attempt was 398 – Damn! He missed passing by 2 lousy points. This was really beginning to get under my skin. How could they prevent my son from walking across that graduation stage simply because his writing skills – his communication skills – are slightly diminished because of his disability? It’s like saying that because he is autistic, he can’t graduate. I called the ACLU.
The ACLU works to stop such injustices. They took up the case and began giving me ideas on how to get the SOL for writing waived. The Virginia SOLs have a back-up for English. Students can submit a portfolio of their writing – from several years of classes – and be scored that way. Oops. Who kept writing samples for the last few years? Where was this rule when we were discussing Matt’s performance at the IEP? A portfolio was a great idea, but we didn’t have the required materials for the year. It was now spring and graduation was looming. Matt had one more opportunity to take and pass the writing portion and the test date was almost upon us. I was a wreck. The Virginia Department of Education was holding their breath, Matt’s teachers were pushing him hard, and his aide wascompletely stressed out. The ACLU was waiting for the results – would we be going to court to fight this requirement on the behalf of autistic children? Matt was also a wreck. He begged not to go to school. I told him this was the last time I would ever make him take this exam. I told him that I knew, his daddy knew, and his brothers and sister knew that he was intelligent and wonderful and no test in the world would ever change how we felt. Matt grudgingly took the English SOL writing section for the last time.
We had to wait a month for the results. Graduation was just weeks away and we were on pins and needles. Then the news came –both written in his notebook and by phone; Matt had gotten a score of exactly 400. Talk about a celebration! Oh my, what a relief. There may not have been dancing in the streets, but there sure was a lot of dancing (and jumping and high-fives) at our house! His teachers smiled again,his aide could breathe again, the ACLU closed the file and I imagine the entire Virginia Department of Education probably went out to slam back a few to celebrate their good fortune.
The following weeks were filled with awards banquets and Matt was honored at each. Academic Letter, Honor-Roll, number 4 in his class (GPA = 3.81), Who’s Who Among High School Students and the National Honor Society. It was one celebration after another.
Finally, the long anticipated graduation day arrived. On a hot spring morning our family gathered together to witness the impossible. My son, my beautiful baby boy who I was told would never be able to do anything, who I should put in a home because autism would be more than I or my family could handle, marched into the packed gymnasium along with his classmates. He sat next to his best friend and we could see them smiling and conversing. Then,his entire row stood up and marched toward the stage. I held my breath as I watched, tears in my eyes, as my son, now a young man, walked toward the stage, head held high, honor-cords around his neck, stepped on stage and shook hands with the principal as his name was read.
And there, for the entire world to witness, a true high school diploma was placed in his hands.