Does School “Accreditation” Mean Anything in Virginia?

Here’s how K-12 accountability works in Virginia. School districts administer Standards of Learning (SOL) tests to measure school children’s mastery of basic skills and concepts. Schools that meet minimum state standards for student achievement — 75% adjusted pass rates for English, 70% for math, science, and history — are deemed to be accredited. Schools that fall short can be designated with a variety of partial accreditation classifications, and they must demonstrate that they are making progress. De-accreditation is a good stick for motivating schools. Although schools don’t lose money, they do lose status, endure the scorn of their communities, and suffer VDOE oversight and meddling.

Just one problem: Schools are motivated to improve their scores, which is not the same thing as improving the academic achievement of their students. The operative word in the paragraph above is “adjusted.” Schools must achieve adjusted pass rates.

Almost no one in the established Virginia media, to my knowledge, has tried to penetrate the logic of VDOE accreditation policies. I could never do it. I am not equipped cognitively or temperamentally to decipher the dense, inscrutable verbiage of VDOE regulations. Outside of the state and the school districts themselves, I know of only one man who has made the effort, and he is a lawyer accustomed to reading impenetrable prose: John Butcher, publisher of Cranky’s Blog.

This graph shows how much “adjusted” SOL scores improve over actual SOL scores. Graphic credit: Cranky’s Blog. 

The numbers for the 2016-17 school year have come out, and Butcher has been digesting them. In the graph at left taken from this post, he compares the actual scores on the 2017 math SOLs to the adjusted scores. In nearly every case, the adjusted scores improve — sometimes significantly so. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), large adjustments tend to kick in around the 70% pass mark — enough to shift a school scoring a 68 or 69 percent pass rate into 70+ territory.

As Butcher notes: “There are 37 schools with 69% math pass rates but only five with that adjusted rate.  The average adjusted rate for those 37 schools is 74%.”

How about that.

In a follow-up post, Butcher hones in on his home town, Richmond, and finds that adjustments pushed eight schools over the 70% mark for math SOLs. The average bump was four percentage points per school. One school, E.S.H. Greene Elementary, received a 26 percentage-point boost.

In yet another post, he drills down to the E.S.H. Greene data. Greene, with a largely Hispanic student body, has appallingly low SOL scores. But thanks to massive adjustments for English as a Second Language students, Greene is classified as accredited.

Concludes Butcher: “This official mendacity gives Greene bragging rights while failing to teach nearly half its students to read or reckon. … More fundamentally: Accreditation — or lack of it — is meaningless.”

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8 responses to “Does School “Accreditation” Mean Anything in Virginia?

  1. VDOE’s various ways of looking at Accreditation is .. shall we say “flexible” but the bottom line is that a whole bunch of schools do meet accreditation and I think over 300 fail either completely or partially to meet all the benchmarks.

    Richmond is one of the poorer performing schools -no question – but right next door in Henrico , more than a dozen schools fail either completely or partially to meet accreditation so that makes me wonder if Henrico has some similar problems…

    Is the school administration in Henrico guilty of the same type failures of the Richmond schools?

    Not just picking on these two – there are about a dozen other school systems with one or more schools but Richmond, Henrico and Lynchburg seem to have more than one or two schools…

    So I’m curious what Cranky thinks of Henrico’s problems?

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for the kind post.

    The one point I would add: We know that SOL is biased against the poorer kids. On the plots showing division SOL declining with increasing economic disadvantage, the R-squared bounces around a bit by subject and year but the usual number is somewhere near 35%. See this: That’s an R (the cognoscenti would say ρ) of -0.6, which is nontrivial.

    They had a lovely measure of progress, the SGP, that started where the kid was, measured his progress from one year to the next, and expressed that as a percentile in the group that started in the same place. The result was essentially uncorrelated with economic disadvantage. But the education establishment hated it. See this:

    So the Board of “Education” killed it. Instead they use raw SOLs, which we know are biased, and secret adjustments that render the numbers even less meaningful.

    And their excuse for killing the SGP is that they can’t calculate it until the summer scores are in. Which they had to know when they started with the SGP.

    After a while it’s hard to think those people are honest.


    • I’m in favor of SGP but there are problems with using it as an accountability measure if the child has more than one teacher … for instance, the kids that are sent to reading specialists then go back to the classroom teacher or the kids that have 3 teachers… etc..

      On top of that – if you try to force teachers into schools that have problems and use something like SGP – then a lot of teachers will refuse that position – and if that is a good teacher – the school risks losing that teacher.

      So these schools with problems – the more accountability you institute – the tougher it is to get good teachers with good qualifications to take those positions.

      You have this problem in all school systems including ones like Henrico which has a dozen schools in accreditation trouble and who would have even a harder time with staffing if you put SGP as a requirement.

      Beyond this – think about non-public school competitors.. would they do this?

      How would they attract teachers if they put such high accountability measures on the teachers they would hire?

      I’m not arguing against accountability here but I am pointing out that a lot of teachers are not highly skilled in teaching kids with deficits in reading, math, etc… My understanding is that it not only takes a Masters but specific course-work and that the State does not specify the requirements – but the Feds do with TItle 1…

      These higher skilled teachers – who teach only kids with deficits and only for their specific deficits.. if you put SGP on them.. would you still attract them if they could lose their jobs and not being able to find work at other schools once they got fired for not meeting SGP benchmarks?

      Teachers are like any other folks looking for jobs.. they’re not going to take a job that puts their career at risk.. unless the pay is higher than typical teachers or they have some level of “safe harbor” because kids with these deficits – have more than just academic deficits in their lives.. they typically live in poverty with one parent in unstable family circumstances – and you’re going to tag a highly-educated teacher with “failure” if the kid does not make one year progress.

      In fact.. the higher the emphasis on “accountability” -the harder it is for school systems to find anyone willing to take those jobs.. and that’s exactly what you see going on at these failing neighborhood schools.. No teacher with any other option is going to take those jobs – even now.. so the only takers are newbies hoping to get vested and then get the hell out of dodge… or existing teachers that have already got booted from other schools.

      It’s a harsh reality with respect to demanding SGP…

      Finally – if you can find some non-public schools to take this on – I’m all for it .. and would support using taxpayer dollars to do it but I strongly suspect that non-public schools are going to do everything in their power to evade equivalent accountability …

      Take a look – not at Richmond – but at Henrico and tell me how Henrico should be dealing with their failed schools. Why do they have failed schools just like Richmond even though they are considered by many to be superior to Richmond schools?

  3. Our state government has instituted a process that lacks accountability? I’m positively shocked! Shocked, I tell you. Seriously Jim – please find any process where accountability exists. How about the nameless, shameless committee meetings in the General Assembly where bills die without recorded votes? Spare me. This is the handiwork of your grossly incompetent and culpably negligent state legislature. What did you expect?

    • What did I expect? I don’t know.

      My job is to look where others are not looking (although in this case, John Butcher is the one who is doing the looking), and to document what others may not yet know.

      • well to a certain extent all that is being accomplished is to unearth stinking stuff.. for all to see and marvel at… perhaps a fun activity for idle time on hands..but not really substantiative in terms of discussing policy or solutions.. to include competitors to public schooling.

        I notice, for instance, that there are different levels of accreditation “failure” to include areas such as reading…. yet… no where that I can find is there any stipulation by VDOE as part of it’s sanctions that the school in question actually have to hire specifically qualified staff in those areas where there are failures… they look like they replace the principal and some others in the command hierarchy but no stipulation that highly qualified teachers with specific backgrounds in the areas where there are problems – be hired – and those teachers held accountable …

        Perhaps this is one of those areas where non-pubic schools would take those students that are failing and actually hire qualified staff since the schools like Henrico – don’t seem to – even though they do spend overall about twice as much money than mandated for SOQs… there is no SOQ or other stipulation that remedial staff be hired … and Henrico apparently chooses to not spend their discretionary money for that purpose.

        these are the substantiative issues worthy of discussion and beyond the ” “popular” look what steaming pile of you-know-what that I have unearthed with by latest FOIA/similar data search” …

  4. Well – you got to admit – it does meet the test for transparency and it does affect school systems …… at most of them – it’s a big deal if they fail to achieve accreditation … although I admit – the actual process for what happens if they fall short is a bit inscrutable….and neither VDOE nor the schools that fail to achieve seem too anxious to explain it in clear terms in easily found places on their websites.

    Virginia’s standards are considered pretty good for the US – better than most not quite as good as places like Massachusetts and New Jersey..but still mired in 25th place in math, science and language on a world comparison basis – not just Asia – but most of Europe… we end up comparable to developing countries.

    There are lots of excuses made , a primary one is that we are a big diverse country with an underclass that does not have a culture of education and have remained difficult to educate because our system is optimized toward the majority and not the harder-to-teach. The more ignorant among us try to make this about race but the reality is it’s a reflection of a segment of our society that for generations was denied a decent education.. and as a result often mired in poverty – and our education system effectively segregates them by the use of neighborhood schools.

    You’d think that would actually give focus to the issue but instead it tends to concentrate an array of negative things outside of school – like rampant unemployment and associated criminal activities of those who cannot get employment in legal things… and get involved in illegal activities like drugs and black market.. that then separates families along with our welfare entitlement policies that deny benefits to households with able-bodied.

    So this all gets dumped on the school system to “solve” and not without a lot of failure – not just in places like Richmond’s poorer neighborhoods – but even in rich counties like Henrico and across the state in other places like Norfolk, Portsmouth and Lynchburg… even other places like Charlottesville and Fairfax.

    So you have the transparency and we know the problem is almost always associated with neighborhood schools serving neighborhoods with low income/poverty economic demographics.

    These schools are not schools where well-qualified veteran teachers will willingly go to and if forced – for the same pay as easier schools that won’t harm their careers by being tagged with being held “accountable” for low SOL scores and administrators will then staff those schools with newbie entry level teachers or cast-offs teachers that other schools don’t want.

    So – we should not say there is a lack of accountability – there is – and individual teachers who are good – are not going to let themselves be held accountable for things that are not due to their own lack of performance but rather a bigger problem that cannot be solved without additional help and resources..

    But to say there is a lack of accountability is totally wrong… and I invite those who think that to go to VDOE or just GOOGLE “reconstituted school” to see what that means… people DO lose their jobs but usually not the administrators… themselves.. but they ARE held accountable for taking the actions VDOE requires when schools fail to achieve accreditation.

    Like so many other things in our politics these days – it’s the short and sweet but totally ignorant sound-bite that “informs” and very little beyond that is actually “learned” by those who say they are interested in the issue – they’re really not that much – only to the point where they can conclude that the schools and government “fail” and that similarly ignorant “solutions” like non-public/voucher schools – not transparent and not held accountable – are the “solution”.

    No surprisingly – VDOE and other schools are not that wild about feeding more “data” that will be used by critics as ammunition to further impugn with absolutely no constructive criticism on what to do to improve. just more mud flung for effect.

    Some day, I remain, ever hopeful, BR will generate a post that actually does get to the real truth of this…. and an honest and informed discussion can ensue.

  5. Pingback: How to “Correct” Lousy Test Scores – CrankysBlog

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