When teachers in Fairfax County review results of the state's Standard of Learning tests, they learn whether their students passed or failed in a given subject.
But beyond that, some teachers say, they don't have a great sense of what connections students are making or missing, or why.
In a presentation to the school board Thursday, officials said a new pilot test given across 10 county high schools — which asked students to draw on prior knowledge and new information to solve problems across disciplines — gave teachers new information about what students actually know rather than what they can recall from their curriculum in any given year, as is often the case with standardized tests like the SOL.
With it comes an opportunity to change the way the system assesses its students, officials said.
"It's worth exploring as we explore how we can be less test obsessed," school board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said Thursday.
Superintendent Jack Dale said 689 students in Fairfax County participated last year in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) every few years to measure the quality, equity and efficiency of schools across the globe.
Fairfax participated in a 2012 pilot that spanned 7,400 students in 125 schools across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The test, which included reading, math and science, graded students on a scale of 1 to 6 — from "can locate information that is explicitly stated" to "can generalize and utilize information based on their investigations and modeling of complex problems."
“It’s a higher level skill set than just answering knowledge-based questions. We’ve got to prepare students ... not for Fairfax, not for Northern Virginia … but the entire world," Dale said.
FCPS students earned higher scores on average than their peers at similarly sized schools in the country, the test showed. But the test also gave a better glimpse of how students' socioeconomic status and teacher relationship affects their performance — things that aren't measured as well in standardized tests.
One of the system’s wealthiest school’s, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, scored well above the U.S. average, as well as above the average for Shanghai, China. Dale also noted Falls Church High School, which was on the lower end of the socio-economic scale for FCPS schools, scored the highest among comparable schools, though those students on average performed lower than students at wealthier schools like Langley High in McLean.
Rollout, Expansion of Test Uncertain
It is still unclear whether the test — which relies on sampling instead of results from every student — will be made widely available across the county.
While some school board members said the test offered a chance for the system to lead a change in testing across the United States, others worried about adding another test at a time the school board is struggling with teacher workload and morale and whether the system is testing the right kinds of knowledge.
Lucy Gunter, the school board's student representative, said she was excited by the thought of a test like PISA, she was unsure how it could fit into the testing that already exists.
"I feel like I'm always studying for another test," she said. "[I hope] finding a way to decrease the amount of testing can be found with these results to alleviate some of the stress most students are under right now."
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said there is already too much testing in the county’s schools.
“It is interfering with our instructional time, and damaging our ability to establish those important interpersonal relationships that we need with our students to support them emotionally and socially,” Greenburg said. “You want to help teachers and students like school and each other? Stop volunteering for more tests, and give both groups time back to learn and interact with each other.”
While the pilot was free, Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said Thursday, there’s no telling how expensive it will be going forward, who will do the testing and the scoring and whether it can be duplicated across all high schools in the county.
“I don’t see the next logical step in incorporating this testing methodology or philosophy in a division our size,” Schultz said. “Maybe it inspires us to do some different things, but what do we drop? I haven't heard anything about what we drop ... or how on Earth this becomes sustainable."
Dale said those were policy questions the board would have to grapple with.
“There are clearly tradeoffs and thats what we all want to understand better,” Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said.