How Virginia’s new accreditation could affect IW, Surry schools

Published 10:28 am Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Isle of Wight and Surry county schools could, within two years, see higher stakes attached to their performance on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests under a new state accreditation system weighted more heavily on SOL scores.

Virginia’s Board of Education voted 7-1 on March 28 to adopt the new standards, contending the current system in place since 2018 lacks transparency given the number of schools reaccredited despite having yet to return to their pre-pandemic pass rates.

The Virginia Department of Education and Isle of Wight County Schools each confirmed the new criteria won’t take effect until the start of the 2025-26 school year. Accreditation for the 2024-25 school year will still be based on the circa-2018 methodology.

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Out of Virginia’s 1,823 public schools, 89% were reaccredited at the start of the 2023-24 school year based on 2022-23 test results despite state data showing a four-year 17% rise in the number of third- through eighth-graders statewide who failed their English SOLs, and a 65% increase in the number who failed their math SOLs.

“We see schools that have a 50% reading proficiency rate and are fully accredited as well as schools that have an 86% reading proficiency rate and they’re fully accredited,” said Anne Hyslop, a consultant to the Virginia Department of Education who presented to the board on March 27 ahead of its next-day vote.


How accreditation works currently

The Standards of Learning tests are scored on a 0-600 scale, with 400 representing the minimum at which a student is deemed to have passed. If at least 75% of a school’s students pass the English SOL and at least 70% pass the math SOL – either during the current year or as a cumulative three-year score – the school receives a “level 1” rating for accreditation purposes.

A school can also achieve a level 1 rating with a higher-than-65% pass rate on either test if there’s a corresponding 10% or higher decrease in failing scores compared to the prior year. If not, scores above 65% but below the benchmark equate to a “level 2” rating.

Schools with all accreditation factors at levels 1 or 2 are deemed accredited. Those with pass rates at or below 65% or a level 2 rating that persists four consecutive years are deemed “level 3” and become “accredited with conditions.” Additional accreditation factors that use the levels 1-3 system include “achievement gaps,” which measure a school’s disparity in pass rates by race, gender and other student demographics in comparison to state benchmarks, and a school’s percentage of students deemed chronically absent, or having missed 10% or more of the school year.

The 89% of schools fully accredited include all in Isle of Wight and Surry counties. Another 11% statewide are currently accredited with conditions. None have had accreditation denied, which can only happen if a school fails to adhere to its state corrective action plan.


How growth factors in

Pass rates on English and math SOLs are assessed using a combined score based on the percentage of students scoring 400 or higher and those who scored below 400 but showed “growth” by moving from one of four performance levels to another.

Under the 2018 growth charts, a third-grader who scores between zero and 280 in English is classified as “below basic low,” but would be counted the following year among students who passed if he or she scores between 278 and 302 or “below basic high” in fourth grade.

If two schools each have a combined 90% pass rate based on proficiency and growth, “one school might have 90% of their students at proficiency; another school that’s also at 90% in the combined rate has 50% of their students proficient, but they’re getting to that 90% in different ways and it’s not transparently reported,” said Chad Aldeman, another consultant the VDOE retained to assist with revamping its accreditation standards, at the board’s March 27 meeting.

In Isle of Wight County, the state granted Carrollton Elementary triennial accreditation through 2025 last year with roughly 73% of its students scoring 400 or higher on the English SOL over the past two years. Though Carrollton’s actual pass rate was two points below the state’s 75% benchmark, the school reported a combined 93% pass rate for accreditation purposes in 2022 and an 89% pass rate in 2023 based on 16-20% of below-benchmark scores showing growth.

Surry Elementary in Surry County, which was triennially accredited through 2023 and is up for reaccreditation this year, reported an 86% combined pass rate on its 2022-23 English SOLs, though its true pass rate without the boost from growth would have been 70%. In math, Surry reported a 78% combined pass rate for 2022-23 but without growth would have seen only a 58% pass rate.

Once the new accreditation system takes effect “ we will certainly look at how the new system will impact schools in the division,” said Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.


What’s changing?

The new system the Board of Education voted to adopt in March weights content mastery, likely measured by the SOLs, at 65% for elementary schools, growth among non-passing students at 25%, and readiness for middle school at 10%.

At the middle school level, content mastery will count for 60% of a school’s accreditation rating. Growth will count for 20% and readiness for high school will count for the remaining 20%.

At the high school level, content mastery will count for 50%, readiness for college or career will count for 35% and a school’s graduation rate will count for the remaining 15%.

How SOLs will be scored under the new system, and what measures will be used for the readiness factor, are still very much up in the air.

“The new framework will likely consist of a mastery index weighted heavily to proficiency,” said VDOE spokesman Todd Reid.

The new pass rate and growth metrics will “include all students,” he said, contending the current metrics in place since 2018 do not.

The current growth measure, he said, only looks at students scoring below benchmark, meaning if a passing student goes from proficient to advanced on an SOL there’s no weighted effect. A draft mastery index presented March 27, which the board has yet to adopt, proposes assigning 0.25 points for “basic” SOL scores, 0.75 for scores “approaching” proficiency, 1 for “proficient” scores, and 1.25 for “advanced” scores.

The circa-2018 levels 1-3 indicators are “expected to be replaced with the new school performance and support framework,” Reid said.

The readiness measure, according to Aldeman’s and Hyslop’s presentation, could absorb the chronic absenteeism metric and/or other indicators such as the percentage of middle schoolers who complete a high school end-of-course exam by the end of eighth grade or the percentage of high school students who complete college coursework or earn an industry credential concurrently with their diploma.


The controversy

Anne Holton, the only member of the board not appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, cast the lone vote against the adopted weights.

Holton, who pushed for growth at the elementary and middle school levels, and a school’s graduation rate at the high school level, to be weighted higher, characterized the adopted weights as creating “an A through F grading system for schools” based primarily on “antiquated and flawed SOL tests.”

“It may get labeled with stars or something else instead of letter grades in an attempt to soften the blow, but that’s what this is. … When you label some schools as C, D or F schools, families and teachers who can afford to will be incentivized to move away from those schools, leaving behind the neediest students, mostly Black and brown students, and the least experienced teachers,” Holton said ahead of the March 28 vote. “Those schools will then spiral further behind.”

Isle of Wight and Surry counties each saw racial disparities in SOL scores persist and in some cases worsen with the pandemic.

In Isle of Wight, where 24% of the division’s roughly 5,500 students are Black, the county’s percentage of white students who passed the math SOL fell from 88% in 2018-19 to 83% in 2022-23 while the 70% pre-pandemic pass rate among Black students fell disproportionately to 62% as of 2022-23.

In Surry, where 43% of the division’s 685 students enrolled during the 2022-23 school year identified as Black, 62% of Black students passed that year’s math SOL compared to 75% of white students. Pre-pandemic, 76% of Black students and 87% of white students had passed the math SOL in 2018-19.

Board member Andy Rotherham touted “school choice,” a Youngkin priority that calls for directing public education money to cover tuition at private K-12 schools, as a way to address Holton’s concerns. State Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, proposed a bill in January that would have allowed parents to apply for “renewable school choice education savings accounts” funded with annual Standards of Quality per-pupil state funds, but the bill died in a Senate education committee.

“If you want to address segregation, we could stop treating school district boundaries as international borders and only allowing mostly affluent kids … to move across them while we trap poor kids in other districts,” Rotherham said.

Board Vice Chairman Bill Hansen called the lingering racial disparity in scores statewide “a shame on our commonwealth” and asserted the new, mastery-focused standards would “lift up our disadvantaged and our Black and brown students the most.”

“What this is trying to do is get a system in place to where we can have our dollars targeted to those schools and those students who need it the most. … This is not some bogeyman of trying to take dollars away,” Hansen said.

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, also opposes the new mastery-weighted framework. Chad Stewart, a VEA policy analyst, told The Smithfield Times he too believed the change would result in schools receiving “one to four stars or some sort of letter grade.”

“We don’t know the final details yet,” Stewart said.

According to Stewart, Virginia is already spending more per student on schools that meet state benchmarks than those that don’t.