Virginia State Superintendent Admits Accreditation Standards are Unreliable Measure of School Performance; Number of Failing Students Tripled in Reading, Quadrupled in Math

September 22, 2022, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow admitted Virginia’s accreditation system skews data in a manner that “obscures the impact of the pandemic and school closures.”

According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), “Eighty-nine percent of schools earned full accreditation for 2022-2023, compared with 92% in 2019-2020, the last year for which the Virginia Department of Education calculated school ratings before the coronavirus pandemic.”

Balow pointed out, “These ratings call into question the effectiveness of our accreditation standards in identifying schools where students are struggling to achieve grade-level proficiency.”

“The number and percentage of schools earning accreditation is almost as high as three years ago,” said Balow, “despite significant declines in achievement on Standards of Learning tests in reading, math and science — especially among minority and economically disadvantaged students. Accreditation is one of the primary drivers of state interventions and local efforts to improve outcomes for students, and frankly, the school ratings we are releasing today fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students.”

Failures Tripled in Reading and Quadrupled in Math

As one example, Balow explained that “in English, lower expectations on the reading tests introduced in 2020-2021 and how growth is factored into accreditation resulted in more schools achieving at Level 1 in English than before the pandemic. This masks the catastrophic learning losses experienced by our most vulnerable students.”

According to VDOE, “Prior to the pandemic, the number of students statewide who failed an SOL reading test but showed growth — and therefore counted toward their school’s accreditation rating — ranged from 19,000-20,000. With this latest round of accreditation calculations, the number has more than tripled to 61,000.

“Similarly, the number of students who failed a math SOL test before the pandemic but showed growth and counted toward their school’s rating was about 20,000. This year the number has quadrupled to more than 88,000.”

Waivers Compound Skewed Data

According to VDOE, “136 schools that otherwise would have been accredited with conditions were automatically granted full accreditation due to waivers mandated by the General Assembly. Legislation approved in 2015 grants three-year waivers from annual review to schools previously accredited for three consecutive years.”

Schools who are rated as “accredited with conditions” have one or more school quality indicators at Level 3.

Balow Fails to Address “Opt-Out” Impact on Data

The press release distributed by VDOE fails to address all the students who opted out of SOLs.

In the wake of COVID building closures, school districts like FCPS pushed information about opting out of SOLs. FCPS staff repeatedly emailed information about how to opt out of SOLs, even though this was not its pre-COVID procedure. Within the emails, they enclosed links to “SOL intent” forms parents could use to opt their children out of testing.

In addition, at the high school level, school staff pushed high schoolers to use scores from the ACT or SAT as substitutes for the SOLs the students were required to take.

Superintendent’s Statement Aligns With Class Action Lawsuit

Yesterday, a class action lawsuit was filed against VDOE and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). Among other things, the initial filing points out that in an 11-year period, 847 due process cases were filed in Virginia and hearing officers ruled in favor of parents merely in 13 of those 847 due process cases.

With data as dismal as what Balow admitted and characterized at a crisis level yesterday, one wonders why due process hearing officers are ruling in favor of Virginia school districts at a rate exceeding the national average—especially when its largest school district, FCPS, is being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights, provided recovery services to less than 1% of its students as of February 2022, and has spent merely 5% of its America Rescue Plan (ARP) funds.

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