Metrics, Reality, and Virginia’s New Accreditation Standards

Tomorrow the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will release the first public school accreditation ratings calculated according to the 2017 Standards of Accreditation. The new standards are designed to measure how well schools are educating Virginia’s school children, giving credit to schools that are showing progress even if they fall short of the standards.

VDOE has a tough job. On the one hand, educators want to set high standards of achievement so Virginia students can engage successfully in a highly competitive global economy. On the other, rule writers want to acknowledge the challenges faced by schools with disproportionately large numbers of “at risk” students — those with disabilities, from lower-income families, or who speak English as a second language. The new accreditation standards cut low-achievement schools some slack if they manage to improve performance year to year.

As VDOE summed up the new approach in a press release issued in anticipation of the accreditation report tomorrow:

The new state accreditation standards are designed to promote continuous achievement in all schools, close achievement gaps and expand accountability beyond overall performance on Standards of Learning tests. These new standards also recognize the academic growth of students making significant annual progress toward meeting grade-level expectations in English and mathematics.

You can read here a detailed explanation of what goes into the accreditation standards. Schools will be evaluated according to three broad sets of criteria:

  • Overall student achievement based on Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates for English, math, and science in elementary and middle schools, and on other criteria in high school.
  • Achievement gaps based on differences in average scores between “student groups.” The groups are not spelled out explicitly, but presumably are racial/ethnic groups or groups defined as “disadvantaged,” disabled, or ESL (English as a Second Language).
  • Student engagement metrics such as dropout rates, absenteeism, and graduation and completion rates.

VDOE provides an illustration (reproduced above) of how this might work for a sample middle school. Let’s say 10 students take the SOLs and only six students pass. But if two of the failing students showed “growth,” and one English Learner showed “progress,” the school would be given a “combined rate” of 90%.

The goal is admirable: to reward schools that show achievement gains even if the average pass rates fall short of desired standards. It makes no sense to shame teachers and administrators of poorly performing schools if they’re showing signs of engineering a turn-around. The danger of this approach, however, as amply demonstrated by SOL cheating scandals in recent years, is that teachers and administrators may be tempted to game show progress by manipulating the metrics.

That danger appears to be most evident in the high school “student engagement” metrics. One way school districts have combated high drop-out rates is by ramping up their anti-truancy programs. But it’s one thing to get kids back onto the school grounds, and another to get them into the classroom. At some schools, teachers literally patrol the grounds to get kids back inside. And even if kids are corralled into classrooms, there is no guarantee that they are learning anything. Indeed, to the extent that disruptive kids are coaxed back into classrooms, they may degrade the learning of others. In the end, evaluating schools based on drop-out metrics creates tremendous incentives to give kids so-called social promotions. Many students now attending graduation ceremonies receive “certificates of attendance” — improving a high school’s “completion” metrics but degrading the value of the high school credential and tarnishing the accomplishment of students who, despite the odds, earned a diploma.

There is another danger in the high school evaluations — how to show students’ progress in the absence of SOL tests, the last set of which occurs in the 8th grade. The VDOE summary mentions “assessments” for English, math and other subjects but does not say what they are. The following comments here are based upon a fragmentary understanding of how the system works, thus they are subject to correction. I bring up the topic in the hope that readers will fill in any gaps.

In Henrico County, high school teachers compile SGMs or Student Growth Measures, for each of their students. While students may fall short of standardized assessments, the idea is to document that they have at least shown “growth” in their understanding of a subject through the school year. Teachers are evaluated by the number and percentage of their students who show growth. The potential for sanctions creates incentives for teachers to fudge the evaluations — counting even miniscule signs of learning as “growth” — in order to give administrators what they want. The SGMs do not indicate mastery of a subject, but they allow administrators to say their students are making progress.

What happens in Henrico County may or may not be representative of what occurs in other Virginia school districts. But the temptation for teachers and administrators to fudge statistics is universal. VDOE can update its methodology for accrediting schools, and the department can try earnestly to safeguard its metrics against cheating and manipulation. But when schools are driven to graduate kids who have no desire to learn, and administrators are compelled to adopt restorative-justice disciplinary methods, and VDOE tightens its strait-jacket of rules and reports — in sum, when teachers and principals are asked to do the impossible — don’t be surprised if school statistics and accreditation reports become increasingly disconnected from reality.

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3 responses to “Metrics, Reality, and Virginia’s New Accreditation Standards

  1. VDOE does have a tough job and the idea of giving credit for progress – on it’s face sounds mealy-mouth abandonment of real standards but keeping good and motivated teachers in schools with large numbers of at-risk is a losing proposition if at the end of the day – their school and their classroom is said to have “failed” and those teachers leave only to replaced by a another bunch of newbies who take their turn at being thrown to the wolves and replaced and the school never improves.

    Take a school system like Henrico. What teacher wants to be assigned to those schools that are “failing”? Even the most competent will see such an assignment as a mortal threat to their career. So who actually ends up staffing those schools?

    Here’s a metric that will help us understand. How long a teacher is in a school. My bet is that the high scoring schools have veterans who will spend their entire career at that school whereas the failing schools have a high replacement cycle. IF we KNOW THIS – what would “we” actually have to say about it? Would we blame the Henrico County School administrators? Would we blame the principal? Who would we blame – and more important – what would we do to fix it other than more replacement?

    Here’s a wild idea!

    Why not have non-public schools – ADOPT these State standards (that critics will say are LAX) – as is or add their own tougher metrics – and they too be “transparent” by releasing them .. AND in doing that, competitive so that everyone can see if some innovative school is having better success – use that success to spur the others to improve also – both public and private?

    As tough a job as the public schools do have with the low-income demographics.. and as much as they get hammered over the results -why
    not have some genuine competition?

    That’s my heart. My mind tells me that no private school wants the job of teaching these kids much less be in a competition … but I remain the eternal optimist ( some would no doubt say infernal. ;0 )

    • There are Christian schools who would be delighted to teach children from low-income homes. The issue is money. If we broke the government-run school monopoly, more private schools would soon be available for the poor. Reasonably large educational vouchers would solve that problem and still be less costly to the tax payers than government-run schools.

      The real issue, I think, is that we need to get away from the idea that education is a right. We can provide children the opportunity for an education, but children have to work to become educated. The only way to drive that home is to deny those who won’t behave the opportunity, the privilege, of being in an institution of learning.

      Government-run schools have relatively little incentive to throw out troublemakers. Private schools, on the other hand, have parents who can take their children elsewhere, and they will if discipline is not maintained.

  2. I agree with all points of skepticism that Jim raises against the value of these Metrics, Reality, and Virginia’s New Accreditation Standards. However, I would double down on his skepticism and say:

    The official accreditation of Virginia’s elementary and secondary public schools is, in fact, worst than useless absent a drastic change in the toxic anti-child and anti- teaching and learning culture that is now rampant within a great and growing majority of our K ’12 schools.

    I say worse than useless because state sanctified accreditation leaves the public, including the parents of school age children, with the often false impression that these accredited schools will likely succeed in achieving their mission of teaching kids to be well educated and highly employable men and women, when in fact these public schools typically do the reverse. Not only do they fail to properly educate kids through K-12, they far too often now actively harm children, and increasingly harm them irrevocably. And they do it not only by omission, but also increasingly they do it by commission. It’s a systemically corrupt system that operates under a toxic culture within the classroom that increasingly assures the failure of our children, socially, morally, and educationally.

    If you doubt this, think through these assertions.

    I suggest there are two ways to begin to deeply consider these assertions, one uses a growing body of analysis and opinion that arises by an honest and rigorous study of empirical evidence found within many of today’s K-12 public schools, indeed, within a rising number of these public schools.

    For an example of these current trends in our nation’s public schools read the September 27, 2018 article by Joy Pullman in the Federalists titled Why Putting Your Kids In Public Schools Is Now More Dangerous Than Ever.

    See: http://thefederalist.com/2018/09/26/putting-kids-public-schools-now-dangerous-ever/

    If you want to go deeper into that subject then delve into what comprises a good education and why, as it is discussed in Hillsdale College’s free online class: “A Proper Understanding of K-12 Education: Theory and Practice.”

    However, there is a second approach that I find even more powerful.

    Look at the historical record. Target your study of relevant history that shows and proves what has worked in the education of children within classrooms, irrespective of the outside circumstances that would otherwise impact children, and what has failed every time in our efforts to educate children no matter the outside circumstances they may enjoy or suffer from.

    The black scholar Thomas Sowell is a master of this sort of historical proof and analysis, a skill and task rarely undertaken by others in the study of American education, whether it be in our schools of education, or in liberal arts generally. So Thomas Sowell is a brilliant outlier whose writings deserve deep study.

    Why?

    Because Thomas Sowell’s technique of study has been so rarely employed by others to validate or disprove their own modern work, many unsubstantiated myths have arisen in education that have led us, and our teaching of children far astray, to the great detriment of our children. These are myths that have never been challenged, must be challenged now, if only because the obviously gross failure of public K-12 schools to date can no longer be tolerated. Our culture and its competence, under brutal assault, now is falling apart. If we fail to confront these challenges, it will be our demise.

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