A Year in the Life of an Elementary School: One School's Experiences in Meeting New Mathematics Standards

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A Year in the Life of an Elementary School: One School's Experiences in Meeting New Mathematics Standards by Karen Dorgan — 2004 This qualitative research project studied the efforts of a small public elementary school over the course of 1 academic year to meet higher standards imposed by the state. The state's department of education defined school success in terms of the percentage of students passing a set of multiple-choice, standardized tests in four core areas of the curriculum. The study looked particularly at strategies the school applied in an attempt to raise students' mathematics test scores. Interviews, classroom observations, and document analysis were used to analyze the effects of new standards and the accompanying testing program on teachers. The project showed the effects of the state testing program on classroom practices, both positive and negative, and it raised questions for further study. In our state, it is difficult to discuss education these days without reference to the SOLs. Educators, parents, students, legislators, and citizens have all become aware of the state’s Standards of Learning, adopted in 1995 (Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia, 1995). This state curriculum framework, coupled with a rigorous plan for assessing student progress, is frequently the subject of newspaper articles, PTA panels, and conversation in supermarket aisles. While the state has long provided a list of grade-by-grade goals by which school divisions are to develop their local curricula, the addition of standardized testing to the mix has raised the level of concern and seriousness about this latest reform movement. The linking of these test results to graduation requirements and state accreditation, placing the state testing program in the category referred to as high stakes (American Educational Research Association, 2001), has increased pressure on students to perform and on teachers to align their instruction with the state’s expectations. Our state is not alone. Education Week reported in January 1999 the results of a 50-state survey of state policies on accountability. They found that ‘‘By 2000 every state but Iowa will have at least one form of a statewide test’’ (Olson, 1999a). At that time, 40 states had standards in all core subjects; nearly all states required tests in English and mathematics, and most also tested students in science, writing, and social studies. States varied in their approaches to accountability: Education Week cited Texas as an example of a state with a hard-line approach, while Connecticut was said to take a ‘‘more low-key approach’’ (Olson 1999b). Virginia, the state in which this research was conducted, was placed in the hard-line category, both in constructing its state standards and in designing its assessment plan. The impact of the state’s approach to accountability on teaching and learning is the primary focus of this research.

IMPETUS FOR THE RESEARCH When the state department of education released the Standards of Learning, school divisions received it without much fanfare. When the state’s newspapers published results of the first administration of the associated SOL tests in spring 1998, however, the reality of the situation hit home for many teachers, administrators, students, and parents. The state had significantly raised the bar for student academic achievement, and students would be held accountable for learning the new standards. While many school divisions began implementing curriculum changes during the 1998–1999 school year, the results of the first tests emphasized the distance most divisions needed to go if they were to meet the state’s expectations. Virginia’s tests are criterion referenced and multiple choice (with the exception of the writing sample required as part of the English exams at Grades 5, 8, and high school end-of-course; Virginia Department of Education, 2001a). The tests are untimed but are considered...
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