August 21, 2017 Published in Editorials

Two Steps Forward—More than Two Steps Back Editorial

The Virginia Department of Education released its Standards of Learning test scores last week. Overall statewide scores increased modestly. That, however, was not the case in Alexandria where overall district scores declined from last year’s levels with most below the scores of two years ago. 

This is a very unfortunate situation. The schools had made progress over the past several years and although scores remained below the state averages for most sub-groups in most subjects, the gap was starting to shrink.

Most students take five SOL tests: reading, writing, math, history, and science. The State divides students into seven sub-sub-groups: Asian, Black, Economically Disadvantaged, English Learners, Hispanic, Students with Disabilities and White. Thus, in any given year the schools have seven sub-sub-groups taking five tests yielding 35 results per grade (3, 4, 5, 6 and 8) and additional test results in for End of Course Test for secondary school students.

You would expect some variation in test results over time. All classes do not include the same distribution of abilities. 

This year, sub-groups improved or stayed the same in only 14 of the 35 test results. Scores declined in 21. Last year scores improved or stayed the same in 21 outcomes and declined in only 14. So in one year we have reversed the gains.

In fact, it is worse than that as the large drop this year has resulted in scores that are below those of two years ago in 21 of the 35 outcomes. We have slipped back by more than two years in the test progress we had made. That is pretty shocking.

What is even more disturbing is looking at the results by subject. This year no sub-group scored at or above its level of two years ago in Math.  All seven declined. Writing was the next worse with only two sub-groups, Black and White students, scoring at or above their levels two years ago. History was third worse with only three sub-groups, Black, White and Economically Disadvantaged students scoring at or above their levels of two years ago.

All was not negative, however, as Reading Test results showed that five of the seven sub-groups scored higher than two years ago but only one, English Learners, scored at or above the results of last year. Science Test results showed that four of the sub-groups scored higher than two years ago but only two, Blacks and English Learners, scored at or above the results of last year.

When Alexandria’s students are compared to the state averages, we tend to come up short. White students in the system consistently outperformed the State average for white students in all five tests taken each year for the past three years. Black students outperformed the State average for Black students only in Writing for the past three years and in Reading for two of those years missing just by a point this year. Black students performed reasonably close to the state averages in the other subjects indicating that ACPS have made gains with this sub-group.

Asian students outperformed the state average only in reading for the two years prior to this one where their reading scores dropped by 14 points to put them eight points below the state average. They are consistently under the state average in all other subjects, often by a wide margin.

None of the other sub-groups; Economically Disadvantaged, Hispanics, English Learners, or Students with Disabilities have managed to reach the state average for their sub-group on any test in the past three years. For the most part their scores are 10 or more points below the state average.

We are particularly distressed with Alexandria’s Hispanic students’ scores. Prior to the SOLs, Hispanics scored above the norm on national standardized tests that ACPS administered. We do not understand how their performance could be so far below the average now.

The School Board has spent countless hours on school buildings which have been shown in study after study to have only a minor relation to student achievement. It is time for the Board to grapple with the real work of school boards which is increasing the achievement of all students. They can start by attracting an experienced and committed Superintendent to Alexandria. This is not a training ground for the inexperienced.

The Board should insist on better quality principals in all schools. Research has consistently shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the school principal. T. C.  Williams High School is the perfect example. TC was a failing school when Suzanne Maxie took over. Over her five year tenure the school succeeded. Two years after she left it has slipped back. Hopefully the new incumbent in that position can reestablish the kind of leadership needed because TC can’t succeed under an ordinary principal.

The ACPS must also do a better job of explaining how they plan to raise achievement. It was noteworthy that the SOL scores were released this year with no explanation at all except to highlight the success in reading. The numbers are the numbers and the schools owe the taxpayers who fund them generously a detailed and jargon free explanation about what is going on.

It is clear that our Alexandria’s public schools are now at a critical juncture. It is time to see the kind of leadership that will bring them back to heading in the proper direction.

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