Sold On SOLs?

JMU Education Researcher Says Teachers Should Embrace Tests

Posted: August 1, 2014

Amanda Randall (left), with James Madison University’s Training and Technical Assistance Center, works with Elaine Gaston, a teacher at Lynchburg’s Linkhorne Middle School, during an education conference Thursday at JMU. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
John Almarode, a James Madison University assistant professor and head of the university’s Department of Educational Foundations and Exceptionalities, addressed teachers Thursday at Successful Learning Tools for All Students, a two-day conference held at JMU.

HARRISONBURG — K-12 teachers from 35 underperforming schools were encouraged Thursday to embrace what many consider a bane to their profession.

John Almarode, a James Madison University assistant professor and education researcher, told a conference of teachers and administrators that the Standards of Learning do not prevent them from being “as creative as they used to be,” an excuse he often hears, or from making learning fun and engaging.

It’s no secret that educators statewide grumble about the SOLs, a set of achievement goals and standardized tests to measure whether students are making enough progress.

Almarode, head of the university’s Department of Educational Foundations and Exceptionalities, says teachers who can’t be creative with the SOLs probably weren’t creative before SOLs existed, either.

Almarode was the keynote speaker Thursday at Successful Learning Tools for All Students, a two-day conference held at JMU.

“There’s nothing in here that says, ‘Students must analyze by doing 4,252 worksheets. They must explain by turning to the back of the book and writing down the definition five times. Compare and contrast — they must do this by completing more worksheets.’ … Standards tell you what to teach. Not how,” Almarode said.

The conference was hosted by Region 5 of the Virginia Department of Education’s Training and Technical Assistance Center, which is based at JMU.

This is the first year for the conference, which is related to an event first held in April to get educators thinking about potential changes for the next school year.

Almarode said the problem isn’t with the Standards of Learning — it’s that they’re misunderstood.

They’re also not taught uniformly throughout the state, meaning students don’t necessarily get the same information from division to division.

He agrees with educators and administrators who say the assessments need to be reformed to better measure student progress, but says the curriculum itself is just fine.

Teachers need to be able to distinguish between what’s “need to know,” and “neat to know,” he said.

It’s great if teachers have a love of frogs, for example, but an in-depth knowledge of frogs isn’t going to show up on the SOL tests.

Educators need to make sure they’re teaching required material before adding extras, Almarode said.

On VDOE’s website, the SOLs are explained in brief — for parents, politicians and policymakers, Almarode says — but what teachers should be using are curriculum frameworks that are many pages longer and identify exactly what students need to know and how they will need to prove their knowledge on the tests.

Almarode said many teachers don’t know the curriculum frameworks exist, because they’ve never been taught about them.

Other sessions during the two-day conference dove deeper into strategies for using curriculum frameworks.

“You know, when you’re teaching, you walk in, and it’s go time,” said John McNaught, co-director of the Training and Technical Assistance Center at JMU. “It’s not like there’s a whole lot of time to go research and find out where things are. That, really, is what we’re trying to do here. Not only show them where it is, but how to use it.”

Almarode engaged the audience, which was made up of teachers from about 35 schools, by quizzing them on the effectiveness of common teaching strategies.

Many in the crowd seemed surprised that teachers are the No. 1 influence in how well a child is able to learn, above even the child’s home life, individual characteristics and the curriculum.

 Teachers should expect administrators to challenge their methods, and they should be prepared to defend them, Almarode said.

“If you want to engage in smart teaching, you not only have to know what the research-based strategies are, you have to know exactly what they need to know, and throw overboard things that are neat to know,” he said.

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or

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