Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Virginia SAT Scores Inch Higher, National Scores Decline


Apparent good news from the Virginia Department of Education: Virginia public school graduates in 2016 continued to buck a multi-year national trend of lower achievement on the SAT college-admissions test.

According to a VDOE press release (no link), the commonwealth’s public school graduates outscored their nationwide peers on all three subsections of the college-admissions test:
• Virginia’s public school mean score in reading of 516 was 29 points higher.
• Virginia’s public school mean score in mathematics of 513 was 19 points higher.
• Virginia’s public school mean score in writing of 493 was 21 points higher.

“With the redesign of the SAT this year, the performance of Virginia’s 2016 graduating seniors caps a decade-long trend of increased achievement,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said. “The challenge now as the commonwealth revises its diploma standards is to maintain strong academic performance while expanding the high school experience to include the 21st-century skills demanded by today’s employers.”

Why would Virginia college-bound students out-perform their national peers by an ever-growing margin? Are Virginia public schools really doing a better job of teaching? It would be comforting to think so.

There is so much gamesmanship in educational achievement numbers, however, one would be forgiven for wanting to take a closer look.

One variable that affects median SAT scores is the percentage of the student body that takes the test. A higher percentage suggests that a school system is dipping deeper into the pool of academic talent; students with poorer academic performance are likely to drag down the scores. Inside Higher Ed notes that more students are taking the test nationally than ever before. That could explain some of the national decline. The VDOE press release noted that 65% of Virginia public school graduates took the exam, but did not note whether that was higher or lower than the previous year. So, the question remains open.


SAT scores broken down by race/ethnicity give the same old story. Asians out-perform all other groups. Whites follow fairly close behind, Hispanics lag, and blacks do the worst. “Outcomes are not improving for far too many students of color,” said Board of Education President Billy K. Cannaday Jr.  “Narrowing and ultimately closing these gaps is the state board’s top priority.”


Cranky Not Optimistic about Woodville Elementary’s “Reconstitution”


Not only does Woodbridge Elementary (shown in red) have a high percentage of disadvantaged students, it does worse than schools with comparable students.

woodville_elementaryWoodville Elementary School in Richmond is by some measures the poorest-performing school district in the school system. To be sure, the school has one of the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, but even then, it’s still the worst, as can be seen in the chart above. Performance that bad can’t be blamed on just the students’ socioeconomic status, contends John Butcher over at Cranky’s Blog.

Having flunked accreditation for three years running, the school has applied for “reconstituted” status. The plan calls for adding an administrative dean to the staff, implementing a new reading program, engaging families of students, and reducing suspensions by creating “a more positive climate and environment.”

Butcher does a take-down of the plan: “Never mind the incompetent use of the Mother Tongue by people who purport to teach English to our children. Never mind the confused and vacuous proposals that fail to deal with the incompetent teachers and administrators who sank Woodville into a quagmire of failure.  The application is defective on its face.” Read the whole thing. It’s depressing.

If Cranky is right, nothing fundamental will change. Captive to the platitudes of the educational bureaucracy, Woodville’s leadership is doubling down on the same strategies that failed before. Another cohort of impoverished poor school children, born into economic disadvantage at birth, will fall further behind. One has to ask, is Richmond’s educational system — is Virginia’s educational system — capable of reforming itself, or are poor children just doomed?


Virginia the Best State in the Southeast for Teachers

Source: WalletHub

If you put any faith in WalletHub’s rankings, Virginia is the 6th most teacher-friendly state in the country. The financial services website based its ranking on a basket of 16 metrics. Some highlights:

• 6th – Average Starting Salary for Teachers (adjusted for Cost of Living)
• 24th – Median Annual Salary for Teachers (adjusted for Cost of Living)
• 7th – WalletHub “School Systems” Ranking
• 3rd – Teachers’ Income Growth Potential
• 27th – School Safety
• 17th – Projected Number of Teachers per 1,000 Students by Year 2022
• 19th – Pupil-Teacher Ratio
• 25th – Public-School Spending per Student


Sorry, VDOE, but We Just Don’t Trust Your Numbers


Oh, Jeez, the Virginia Department of Education has just issued a press release proclaiming that 81% of Virginia’s 1,825 public schools are now fully accredited, partly “as the result of improved performance students on Standards of Learning tests.” The 81% figure represents an improvement from 78% the previous year.

Now, it’s entirely possible that some of the top-down efforts initiated by state educational officials actually helped. It’s also possible that the efforts of teachers and administrators paid off. But we won’t know for sure because of recent revelations of how some administrators and some teachers have been gaming the system. The public has no way to know if these incidents are isolated incidents or are the tip of a very ugly iceberg.

If you haven’t been paying attention to Bacon’s Rebellion over the past week or two, let me refer you to some source material:

Gaming the SOLs: Alexandria Edition

A Willful Ignorance

When Is a School Not a School? When It’s a Program

We Were Encouraged to Make the Student Fail

And on a similar subject, let us note the VDOE indifference to non-SOL cheating at the local level, as documented here:

Halt the School Cheating Epidemic

VDOE on School Cheating: It’s Not Our Problem


Bacon Bits

bacon_bitsThere are so developments today in stories that Bacon’s Rebellion has been following that I am compelled curtail my usual bloviating and turn the commentary over to readers.

A wise policy. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise has earned a worthwhile distinction: It is ranked 1st nationally in public liberal arts colleges for graduating students with low debt (based on the latest US News & World-Report annual college guide data). “More than half of the UVa-Wise Class of 2015 graduated without any debt, and the average amount of debt for UVa-Wise graduates who used student loans totaled $14,424 in 2015,” says the university.

How did the university manage the feat despite having a student body in which three-quarters qualify for financial aid and one-third come from families that make zero contribution toward tuition? Well, its annual tuition & fees, at $9,220 this year, are the third lowest in the state. And it dedicates about 60% of its $80 million endowment to scholarships. (Hat tip: Marvin Gilliam.)

VDOE steps in. Responding to a Norfolk school scandal, the Virginia Department of Education will review a measure to curtail the practice in which schools move students with low grades into different classes to avoid having them take their Standards of Learning test, reports the Virginian-Pilot.

Steven Staples, Virginia’s superintendent, said he supports schedule changes to help the student but not to avoid testing. “The department has tried to clearly communicate to all divisions that manipulating schedules or changing courses for the purpose of avoiding accountability is not acceptable,” he told the Pilot.

Dueling protocols. Tests conducted by the James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center show elevated levels of lead and arsenic in sediment and water samples near the Chesterfield Power Station. “One thing this tells us is that we should be getting more data,” said SELC attorney Brad McClane.

The findings follow tests that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted in July that raised no red flags. “DEQ found no violations of the water quality criteria in the sampling locations that SELC,” spokesman Bill Hayden told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. … The data presented to DEQ do not conform to the testing regimen used in Virginia.”

Results can vary depending upon tidal conditions, the depth of the water column sampled, and how far from the station the samples are pulled, McLane said. “We’re performing sampling in a way to find problems if they exist.”

Dominion Virginia Power, which operates the Chesterfield station, is still reviewing the law center tests, a company spokesman said.

“We Were Encouraged to Make the Student Fail”

Maury High School, Norfolk

Maury High School, Norfolk

by James A. Bacon

If you thought the scandal of the Alexandria school principal weeding out weak students from the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams was bad, you ain’t heard nothing yet. In a superb piece of investigative journalism, Cherise Newsome with the Virginian-Pilot has exposed SOL-gaming in Norfolk that was more grotesque by far.

To improve SOL testing scores, Norfolk educators yanked marginal students out of second-semester classes so they could repeat the first semester — and avoid taking the SOL. Educators justified the practice on the grounds that students needed the remedial teaching (which they undoubtedly did). But Katz uncovered plenty of evidence that school administrators were motivated by a desire to improve SOL scores.

Norfolk principals and senior administrators told The Pilot that no students were moved just to avoid testing, but one Lake Taylor High teacher disputes that. The teacher – along with one other and a former administrator at different schools who shared similar accounts – spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

The Lake Taylor teacher said educators were told to make sure there was a defensible reason for pulling kids out ahead of the exams, buying the school more time to improve its accreditation. Lake Taylor hasn’t been fully accredited since 2012-13.

“We were encouraged to make the student fail,” the teacher said. “So even if a student had a D-minus, we were told to make sure to give them something to bring them down a little bit, and don’t provide opportunities for them to make it up because you want them to remain failing so they can repeat first semester.”

Targeted students would take the second part of the SOL course during the following fall. So their schedules were out of order, and they didn’t remember what they had learned, the teacher said: “It didn’t fix any problems. It was just a bad solution.”

Claudia Sweeney, a former Lake Taylor High counselor who retired three years ago, backed up that account. Teachers feared for their jobs and did what they were told, she said. …

The Pilot interviewed a half-dozen students and parents who said the schedule changes put them behind on requirements and caused some to miss out on a standard diploma. The students, including some with special education plans and others who had been on an honors track, provided schedules and transcripts showing they took SOL classes out of order or repeated them.

The practice of “recycling” students does have a justification. As former Granby High School Principal Ted Daughtrey said: “We picked, targeted certain students with certain averages to come back to first-semester classes. … We’re talking about kids that can’t add or subtract positive numbers. They’re just very far behind. So to expect them to be successful in Algebra I in a year is a pipe dream.”

True enough, a child who cannot add or subtract positive numbers has no business taking an Algebra I class. But that begs the question: How did those children get promoted to the Algebra I class in the first place? Why wait to take remedial action until they reached a grade where they took the SOLs? And, if it’s the students the administrators care about, how does it help to enroll them in the second-semester class the following year?

Then Daughtrey spills the beans:

“The picture I’m trying to paint is, if we had left those kids in there like we had in the past, they would have penalized us, not because we weren’t working but because they weren’t coming to school and doing what they needed to do,” Daughtrey said.

When asked what he meant by “penalize us,” he said, “We might not have met the 70 percent pass rate for state accreditation.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Please note: There is nothing illegal with any of this. That’s the real scandal.

Moreover, I cannot imagine that Alexandria and Norfolk are the only school systems in Virginia where SOL gaming is going on. What’s the next shoe to drop? At what point do we recognize that we have an endemic problem, especially in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged, low-performing students? Whose interests are being served by the SOL gaming — those of the students or of the school administrators?

— Hat tip: John Butcher)

When Is a School Not a School? When It’s a Program.

While we’re on the subject of gaming the Standard of Learning (SOL) scores (see previous two posts), Cranky, also known as John Butcher, reminds us how Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, one of the top-rated public high schools in the country and former haunt of Bacon’s Rebellion‘s own Les Schreiber, is not counted as a school for purposes of SOL tracking. Scores of its students, drawn from 12 districts in Central Virginia, are credited to high schools in their home districts.

While the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia is counted as a “school” for purposes of reporting SOL scores, Maggie Walker is not — it’s a “program” in Virginia Department of Education-speak.

Asks Cranky: “Do you care that VDOE brokered this corrupt deal so the local superintendents would let their bright kids go to MLW without lowering the SOLs of the local high schools?”

How many other ways have school officials gamed the system to look better under the SOL scoring regimen? How much faith can we put in the SOLs as a tool for measuring progress in school and school districts?