This year, Isabella Newman, a fourth-grader at William Fox Elementary in Richmond, was thinking about weightier matters than which bubbles to black in as she walked in to class to take the writing portion of her English SOL test last week.
“Protesting has the word ‘testing’ in it,” says Isabella, who at the tender age of 9 took it upon herself to do what so many students, parents and teachers across the state only dream about.
Her protest was not done out of anger, and it wasn’t done rashly. In fact, says Isabella, she’d been planning how best to carry out her silent protest for months.
“I was looking for something like this, because I wanted to show that I didn’t like the SOLs, and it’s not like I can go march into the Richmond Public Schools office and say, ‘I don’t like these SOLs,' ” says Isabella, who despite her tender years speaks with a self-assurance — and a vocabulary — that might challenge even a few college kids. She reads the Atlantic and New Yorker routinely — and not just for the cartoons.
She says she got the idea for her protest from a friend of her stepdad’s, who told her a story about purposely failing his SAT tests as he was applying to colleges. And she got further encouragement — unintended as it may have been — on career day, when a parent of one of her classmates talked about protesting what some critics have suggested was an erosion of personal liberties after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The final encouragement, again unintended, came from her teacher, Mr. David Dejnozka.
“Mr. D, he said a few days before the SOLs — I wrote this in my journal so I could remember it — ‘Don’t take the test for anybody else; take it for yourself,' ” Isabella says. “That’s when I said, 'Yeah, I can do this. Because I’m taking them for me.' ”
Without necessarily meaning to, Isabella chose an important year in which to stage her protest. This year, the Virginia Department of Education launched revised tests for math SOLs at all grade levels, based on beefed-up standards but also incorporating major changes to the tests themselves.
No longer are they entirely composed of multiple-choice questions that, critics for years have charged, allow some districts to undermine the purpose of the tests by teaching testing strategies that often are more akin to card sharking than academic rigor. With the new tests, approximately 15 percent of the questions require a free response from students, with no answer options provided.
“These new assessments are going to move us beyond the multiple-choice era,” says VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle. “They’re open-ended, and the students have to apply what they’ve learned and engage their critical thinking … skills.”
Predictably, there have been some problems with the new tests — and there have been criticisms from parents and educators. Top among those complaints, acknowledges Pyle, is that the tests are taking longer to administer. In the past, the tests took a couple of hours to complete — most have between 45 and 60 questions. But this year, even with fewer questions on some of the tests, students are taking in some cases four to six hours to complete them.
“The best estimate we have is ... students are taking about 30 or 40 minutes, on average, longer,” Pyle says, though “we have heard reports … of students taking much longer.”
And as was expected with the introduction of increased rigor, Pyle says, there has been, in some instances, a notable drop-off in student achievement. Pass rates were down by an average of 27 points.
The minor controversy even inspired Virginia Superintendent for Public Instruction Patricia Wright to pen a letter sent home to some parents who have complained, explaining the rationale for the new tests.
“Please know that I am sensitive to the anxiety parents experience when their children encounter difficulty in school,” Wright wrote in a letter that went home to “at least one parent,” according to Pyle.
“The Board of Education and I anticipated that many students would find the new mathematics assessments challenging,” Wright’s letter said. “Lower scores at the beginning of this process are a sign that the state has raised expectations, not that students are learning less."
Wright predicted that “achievement on the new tests will rise as school divisions align their curricula and classroom instruction with the new mathematics standards and become more proactive in acquainting their students with the format of the new tests."
But Isabella says her protest was against the tests as a whole. She says she’s experienced those butterflies of testing anxiety, only to discover — even in the eyes of a 9-year-old — that the test she was taking was no real measurement of her understanding of the material.
And she says that this year she very definitely noted that the math tests took “way longer” than they did in the past.
“That’s another reason for my protest,” she says. “In third grade, you shouldn’t have to take a full-day test,” she says, recounting how classes that started on the test in the morning were, in some cases, finishing at 1:30 p.m. that afternoon. “It’s like a full-day affair.”
Pyle declined to comment on Isabella's protest, citing student privacy.
But as the dust cleared on her Tiananmen moment, it was Isabella’s mom, Amy Newman, who was left to ponder the true power of her daughter’s actions — and to ponder how best to make sure her child didn’t suffer negative academic consequences as a result of her act of conscience.
Amy Newman says she didn’t really think much of her young daughter’s seemingly idle talk during the morning car ride to Fox about purposely flubbing the test. “I explained to her why the test was important,” she says, recalling what she thought was the beginning and end of the discussion. But when she picked up Isabella that afternoon, “She told me she deliberately got every single [question] wrong — which was very hard.”
Isabella’s anti-testing strategy was simple — a literal deconstruction of testing strategies taught to students throughout the state facing the SOLs. “I knew it would be simple to get the wrong answer, because three out of four [choices] are wrong.”
Newman, who has a look of both parental pride and stunned resignation as she listens to her daughter recount her act, says the family often engages in discussions at home about the importance of taking action and standing up for your beliefs, but she says education policy was not an area they’d ever broached — or one she assumed Isabella was even aware of. “I kind of panicked when I found out. But I didn’t want her to feel like she was going to be in trouble.”
So mom, hat in hand, went to the school’s administrators and explained what her daughter had done. On Tuesday of this week, Isabella took the writing test again. Amy says she wants to see Isabella in the district’s International Baccalaureate program — maybe even gain acceptance to the Maggie Walker Governor’s School.
Schools are allowed under SOL guidelines to permit an expedited retake of a test when circumstances warrant it, according to Pyle.
Isabella still questions why her mom called the school to ask them to allow her to take a retest, saying she doubts her score will have any negative effect on her future. Indeed, she says, she wanted to do this on the other tests, but her mother wouldn’t let her.
Even days later, mother and daughter were trying to talk through Isabella’s strong stand.
“Were you scared personally?” Amy Newman asks her daughter over an afternoon snack at Lamplighter coffee shop. “Not exactly,” answers Isabella, her eyes showing a bright spark of someone wise beyond their years. She notes matter-of-factly that she’d gotten 600s — perfect scores — on most of the practice SOL tests weeks before.
Which leaves mom to shake her head and wonder.
“I don’t understand how I feel about this — except that I know she has her own brain — this was eye opening for me. She’s just got a fire inside of her.”