Food For Thought

SOL Testing - A Guidance Counselor's View
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

After 42 years in education Iíve now joined the retired-teacher ranks. My longevity can be attributed to having taught and worked in several educational positions in addition to being a secondary school classroom teacher. Iím not sure I could have endured forty-plus years in a secondary classroom environment. College teaching is a breeze in comparison to what our public school teachers must endure. Itís no wonder few are remaining in the classroom for extended careers. I donít think I have all the answers to why teachers are leaving the classroom, but a letter written to the Roanoke Times by guidance counselor Esther Whitman Johnson ó Northside High School, Roanoke, Virginia ó sheds some light on one of the reasons.

Esther states: (© Copyright 2001 Roanoke Times)

This week I read another article about the national teacher shortage, and I note with interest in this monthís issue of the newsletter from the Virginia Retirement System. It touts new legislation from Richmond that encourages teachers eligible for full retirement benefits to stay on another year, two or three.

Where have all these lawmakers and state bureaucrats been during the last decade while this crisis was developing? And where are their heads now when they apparently see no connection between SOL testing nightmares and teachers leaving the profession in record numbers?

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, people who can, do teach. In fact, not only can they teach, they can do many other things extremely well.

The conversation in the faculty staff room increasingly turns to the topic of all the things we can do and should consider other than teaching.

Yes, Esther, I too have no real reason to retire. I could teach another three or four years, but why? Even my job as a university professor had become boring and overburdened with paperwork. I wonít even mention the economic side of the teaching picture.

Estherís letter continues,

I have a practically perfect job. Until the last few years, I have looked forward to getting up and going to work every day of my life. My co-workers in the guidance department are heaven-sent; my school administration is extremely fine; the faculty is intelligent, efficient, caring and creative.

Our students are generally a group of kind, hard-working kids who come from families who are supportive of what we do and involved in our school.

And, still, SOL testing is driving me crazy, sapping my energy, my time, my mind, my talent, my positive outlook. I shudder to think of what it is doing to colleagues unfortunate enough to work in schools without the resources I have ó schools that are severely understaffed and underfunded, and whose constituency is poor and uninformed.

I am no longer able to practice the profession for which I am trained ó highly trained ó as a counselor of students. I have become a paper pusher, a recorder, a numbers counter and a signer of my name (no fewer than 67 times during the last testing session).

My past research articles, as well as other surveys conducted by leading newspapers in the state, have shown that parents are solidly against the SOL tests and their present intended use in student evaluation process. In a time when schools need more creativity and flexibility to handle the many demands of a diverse society our political body seeks to solve the problem by installing a punitive testing system that centers on rote memorization of facts. Yes, I know itís in the name of accountability. Give me a break. There are plenty of measures already in place to determine school accountability and we certainly donít need another testing program.

What’s Your View?

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Esther further comments on the SOL testing,

Keep in mind that a huge new program has been laid on the schools of Virginia, most of which are not able to add any personnel to take on the job.

Current personnel are absorbing the mammoth chore, and much of the burden has fallen on guidance counselors throughout the state.

In the May testing alone this year, I spent 88.5 hours solely working on SOL testing, setting up more than 100 testing sessions and reviewing hundreds of answer sheets. And this does not include the additional hours of prep time before May, the hours in the March testing, or the hours during which my door was open to students although I was preoccupied with test prep.

One day alone in my guidance office, counselors with two doctorates and four masterís degrees were counting in answer sheets, packaging tests, reviewing bubble sections and wrapping tests with header sheets literally all day long. Highly trained staff are involved with clerical functions for days on end. What a waste of taxpayer money.

And even more ludicrous, what were we not doing while we were doing this? We were not seeing the children of Virginia. We were simply not available. Scenarios like this were played out in hundreds of schools in Virginia in May and March.

Estherís fears and mine are that as students pass the tests many parents will forget the constant erosion of the teaching profession thatís happening behind the testing scene. When guidance counselors are so burdened with shuffling papers that they donít have time to talk with students or parents, we are headed for serious problems. What is your childís teacher to do? Teach to the test or talk to your child? Under the present threatening environment they canít do both.

Estherís entire letter and passionate plea to parents can be read on the Roanoke Times Web site at


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