Manipulating SOL Scores in Norfolk

If you ever entertained suspicions that statewide gains in Standards of Learning test scores were illusory, news from Norfolk provides more confirmation of your cynicism: In the first year since the district said it stopped pulling struggling students out of classes, reports the Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk has seen a drop in math test scores.

Norfolk administrators told the School Board last week that preliminary results indicate the district’s overall passing rates in high school math fell between 3 and 12 points. In two courses, the passing rates fell below the state’s minimum standards. …

Two years ago, The Pilot’s investigation found staff at all five of the city’s high schools were removing students from courses mid-year if it looked like they would perform poorly on the state tests required for those classes – a practice commonly known as “recycling.” In other cases, students with failing grades were incorrectly marked absent to excuse them from testing.

The practice was common during the 2014-15 school year and continued to a lesser extent into the 2015-16 school year, a state Department of Education investigation found.

This development follows news that the remarkably high pass rates of Richmond’s star elementary school, George W. Carver Elementary, was the result of systematic cheating by teachers administering the tests. Last year, the Virginia Department of Education discovered cheating scandals in Petersburg and Alexandria.

VDOE deserves credit for compelling Norfolk schools to enforce the integrity of the SOL testing regime. But it needs to re-examine previous assertions, based upon statewide aggregation of test scores, that show incremental-but-steady improvement in SOL performance. A  slew of scandals in inner-city school systems calls into question claims that African-American students are making small but consistent gains compared to other racial/ethnic groups.

While the system of public education appears to work reasonably well for whites and Asians, it has failed spectacularly for inner-city African-Americans. Admittedly, educating students drawn disproportionately from low-income families afflicted by absent fathers, chronic financial instability, and child abuse and neglect is a special challenge. The question is: Are these school systems reformable? Or should Virginia be more proactive about  providing alternatives — charter schools and vouchers — that allow African-Americans an escape hatch?

If you’re looking for real institutional racism (as opposed to fabricated racism), it’s staring you in the face.