“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)

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20 responses to ““We Were Encouraged to Make the Student Fail””

  1. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    Forget moving on to Algebra 1. A lot of graduates working at Burger King can’t figure out change for your lunch bill if you give them a few pennies and a nickel with your folded money hoping to get a quarter back for the parking meter. Yes graduates!
    I was once asked for the time, told them it was quarter to 2 and had to explain to this digital-clock-expert that there were 4 quarters in everything including a unit of time, the hour.
    God Bless America!

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    In the 6th grade learning typically shifts dramatically.

    Up until the 6th grade the child’s learning is focused on teaching kids to read (including to spell and write), and do basic add and subtract.

    During the 6th grade, however, the Child’s learning shifts into learning that is dependent upon the child’s ability of read for comprehension and content. Thus the child learn then about other subjects by reading about them and comprehending the content that is necessary to know to advance to the next grade.

    Hence a kid who has not mastered the ability to read by the the 6th grade will stop learning academically for lack of the tools he or she critically needs learn from the 6th thought 12 grade.

    And so each year after the 6th grade, it becomes ever more difficult for a child to catch up. And ever more unlikely that he or she will even begin to catch up. This of course is compounded and acerbated by poor conditions a home, where parents are functionally literate and/or don’t speak English, for example.

    In far too many school districts throughout this nation many, indeed often most children, within that school system thus stop learning altogether after the 6th grade. These children emotionally, intellectually, and socially drop out, although many or most spend another six years sitting in class.

    This grotesque harm is being heaped onto millions of children every day in this country. It’s been going on for now for untold generations. But since the 1960s it grown with each passing decade, spread throughout our society like a cancer. An old law partner of mine who was my father’s age at one time until the early 1970s had represented the National Education Association (NEA). He told me this horror all really started when NEA became a labor union devoted solely to protecting teachers instead of kids.

  3. But it’s all perfectly legal, right Acbar? No foul, right?

    1. No foul. Grotesque, yes, but no foul, if the rules were not breached and it wasn’t hidden!

      The owner of a small business does what is necessary to survive. So does an elementary school principal in a low income neighborhood. If he/she can do it, staying within the rules but exercising a little ingenuity, God bless him. I do not blame the head of school who is innovative within what the rules allow and does not try to hide the school’s policies for doing whatever he/she can to improve the school’s ranking.

      The head of a State bureaucracy ought to set the priorities and the tone and initiate the rulemakings that constrain and condition how that business or school principal can proceed, within the set of rules and laws that govern the bureaucracy. I TOTALLY blame the Virginia Superintendent of Education for sanctioning, indeed encouraging, the manipulation of SOL statistics year-to-year and THEN knowingly representing this as “improved scores due to better use of educational resources” or some such claptrap.

      And I totally blame the Superintendent for student promotion policies that ill serve the students affected.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    well Reed got it right until the end.. still… progress…

    The first 5 grades you learn to read –

    from then on you read to learn…

    and if you can’t read – there is no reason to come to school… because there is nothing you can learn if you cannot read (or add whole numbers).

    But Virginia is a right-to-work state – …

    second -more important – go to most any school district and look at the SOL scores for all the elementary schools in the district..

    like this:

    Charles Barrett Elementary 88.78%
    Cora Kelly Magnet Elementary 76.10%
    Douglas Macarthur Elementary 76.15%
    George Mason Elementary 80.69%
    James K. Polk Elementary 70.69%
    Jefferson-Houston Elementary 59.93%
    John Adams Elementary 74.31%
    Mount Vernon Elementary 64.99%
    Patrick Henry Elementary 78.87%
    Samuel W. Tucker Elementary 80.00%

    now do folks think the schools with the atrocious scores have more “bad” teachers that are being “protected” by the unions?

    what explains such diversity of scores?

    want me to do Henrico’s elementary schools ?

    and again – do you think Henrico’s low scoring elementary schools are due because of bad teachers protected by the unions?

    how about Lynchburg – want me to pull the Lynchburg elementary schools SOL scores and see a similar diversity of good, bad and ugly?

    or do you think something else might be involved?

    Now if what you what is simplistic blame game answers.. then have at it.

    but if you REALLY want to KNOW what is going on – the answer is not that hard …. but you kind of have to want to know …..

    you take a poor neighborhood … staff it’s school with entry level folks because no veteran teacher will take the job knowing that they’ll get blamed and their careers harmed – if the kids fail… so only the entry level folks or the folks the other schools don’t want – will staff that school….. and the rest is history -and repeated across most poor neighborhood schools in Va including places like Henrico and Lynchburg.. Alexandria.. and Norfolk.

    so how would you fix it? Just fire all the folks .. the Principals and the teachers who “fail” to get those kids educated?

    and then what?

    do you think you’re going to fix the problem with more entry level folks who get told they too will get fired if they don’t produce results?

    so – again -what would you do to fix this? real solutions guys…not just blame balther..

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s Henrico: Elementary SOL reading –

    so the question is – is Henrico ALSO gaming the SOLs at it’s higher rated schools also ? and the “honest” ones are reporting the actual – awful scores?

    are the unions “protecting” .. “bad” teachers in Henrico?

    Highland Springs Elementary 49.00%
    Glen Lea Elementary 52.78%
    Fair Oaks Elementary 53.50%
    Montrose Elementary 55.37%
    Laburnum Elementary 58.62%
    Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary 58.74%
    Ridge Elementary 63.24%
    Dumbarton Elementary 63.51%
    Elizabeth Holladay Elementary 64.58%
    Sandston Elementary 64.84%
    Charles M. Johnson Elementary 65.09%
    Varina Elementary 65.52%
    Lakeside Elementary 67.14%
    Cashell Donahoe Elementary 67.20%
    Arthur Ashe Jr. Elementary 68.28%
    Jacob L. Adams Elementary 68.75%
    Longdale Elementary 69.95%
    Henry D. Ward Elementary 72.27%
    Harvie Elementary 74.07%
    Ruby F. Carver Elementary 74.22%
    Seven Pines Elementary 75.10%
    Chamberlayne Elementary 75.81%
    R.C. Longan Elementary 77.36%
    Skipwith Elementary 79.72%
    George F. Baker Elementary 81.04%
    Maybeury Elementary 82.19%
    Jackson Davis Elementary 82.99%
    Greenwood Elementary 83.04%
    Pinchbeck Elementary 83.13%
    Pemberton Elementary 83.89%
    Maude Trevvett Elementary 86.10%
    Springfield Park Elementary 86.18%
    Glen Allen Elementary 87.57%
    Gayton Elementary 91.51%
    Colonial Trail Elementary 91.92%
    Short Pump Elementary 92.20%
    David A. Kaechele Elementary 93.25%
    Rivers Edge Elementary 93.27%
    Twin Hickory Elementary 93.87%
    Three Chopt Elementary 93.92%
    Tuckahoe Elementary 94.81%
    Nuckols Farm Elementary 94.93%
    Echo Lake Elementary 95.33%
    Shady Grove Elementary 96.45%

  6. What’s your point, Larry?

    You don’t have to fire anybody. You just have to let the market determine where parents send their kids to school. It’s called vouchers. Legal wherever tried (unless of course it’s a state like Oregon, where the liberals rule the roost) And don’t tell me you just want voucher schools to have the same standards as public schools, which totally fails to miss the point (as we used to say at the bargaining table). The whole point is they don’t have to follow the b.s. from the public schools. If they succeed at their real goal (educating kids, particularly inner city kids, better than the deplorable public schools), the market will reward them; if they don’t succeed, the schools and their investors will fail…and quickly (or at least more quickly than the public schools, which currently are never allowed to fail). Good teachers from the public schools need not worry, they’ll be hired by the voucher schools if anything adverse happens to the public school situation. It’s what the free market is all about: flushing crap from the system.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    As I’ve told you before – numerous times Crazy – I’m all for vouchers if they have to take the same demographics and they are subject to the same testing and transparency rules.

    “good” teachers are not going to go to the voucher schools to teach the at-risk kids that they also will not go to teach at the low-income neighborhood schools.

    why would you think they’d do that? They’d stay at the “good” neighborhood schools and get their decent salaries, health care and pensions without having to risk them by teaching the “hard to teach”.

    you guys live in LA LA “market” land on this. you “believe” and yet the reality is that there are very, very few non-public schools that teach the hard demographics and provide a high level of transparency to prove that they succeed. You can find as many charter schools “cheating” as you can public schools.

    How about you turn over the “bad” Henrico schools to the private sector – in those neighborhoods.. and let them deal with the very same SOL standards – and see what happens.

    I’m game.. are you? Your “market” is a mythical one that exists in your mind .. guy.. it’s not real… if it were – the non-public schools that already exist would be wildly successful -hands down – no contest… why in the world would a well paid public school teacher with benefits – who has the “easy” kids to teach – to to a low-income charter school with lower pay and benefits where they promise to fire them if they don’t succeed? deep LA LA land..

    1. Larry,

      You’re simply not persuadable on any of this, so I will not waste much of my time. All I can say is you’re probably projecting from when you were a teacher, simply reflecting badly on your own attitude as a teacher. Perhaps contrary to your own example, there are many who will take up that mantle, and do. I’ve posted on here several times about Paul Adams’ Providence St Mel in Chicago as the perfect example of this. Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academies, started in Harlem and now spread throughout New York City in spite of the frantic efforts of public school teachers to send them down the tubes, are another example of the “wild success” of this approach. You simply don’t want to acknowledge it and continue to argue by assertion that it doesn’t work, won’t work, and isn’t real etc etc.

    2. “subject to the same testing and transparency rules.’

      Transparency rules? Seriously. That’s what this whole series of posts have been about, Larry. Transparency, or more properly, the lack thereof.

      And you want to subject the voucher schools to that same transparency? Hmmm.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Crazy – you said this : ” And don’t tell me you just want voucher schools to have the same standards as public schools, which totally fails to miss the point (as we used to say at the bargaining table). The whole point is they don’t have to follow the b.s. from the public schools.”

        and then you say this: ” That’s what this whole series of posts have been about, Larry. Transparency, or more properly, the lack thereof.”

        I’m not advocating BS rules guy. I’m advocating the SAME transparency rules .

        Now – are you? or are you not?

        1. So you’re in the same camp as Steve and Acbar. It’s fine to hide the oyster and game the system, we just want everybody to game it the same way? Laughable

  8. LarrytheG Avatar


    I’m asking you if you support transparency for both public and voucher schools – the very same for both.

    it’s a simple question -guy and it’s the same question asked before and not answered.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think there is some confusion here with my views of public school and SOLs

    I do NOT think most public schools do a good job with disadvantaged, at-risk kids.

    I think they ARE guilty of evading the spirit if not the intend of the NCLB law – taking advantage of every flaw in the law to evade actual disclosure – and then some with the reports of gaming and cheating. I defend NONE of this.

    However I do not see the failure to teach the at-risk kids as a government failure, a union “protection” of “bad” teachers, bad parents nor bad genes.

    And I do not think Voucher schools will do any better even if they are non-govt, don’t have unions, get rid of “bad” teachers, still have bad parents and at-risk – hard to educate kids.

    But I am MORE THAN WILLING to allow voucher schools to go forward with 2 simple provisos:

    1. -that they be AT LEAST as ‘accountable’ as the public schools are – AND if they don’t want to game the system and cheat and want to use that as an additional selling point – GREAT! do it!

    2.- that the vouchers schools truly enroll the at-risk kids in at least the same numbers they exist where they locate -AND THAT if their claim is they will do better than public schools with at-risk kids – then voucher schools locate primarily where low-income neighborhoods are.

    If folks like the concept of Student Growth Potential – then again – I’m fine with it as long as both public and voucher schools do it per some standard that they both adhere to.

    As far as standardized tests in general and the NCLB/SOL regime in particular are concerned – I am opposed to high stakes testing AND I am opposed to standardized testing for any other than core subjects in reading, writing and math – and then only in the elementary grades and that kids be “assessed” not “tested” – informally -so that this is not a high-stakes environment for the kids nor the teacher.

    If a child is not making the grade – then Head Start/Title 1 type – Masters-Degree specialists need to take over from the basic degree teachers and there needs to be enough staff to serve the need..

    All of the above – would be taxpayer-funded.

    Now , please tell me how this is “liberal” or “leftist”. seriously

    Now – the NEXT TIME someone trots out these tired perjoratives – we’re going to go at it again and I am going to cut and paste the above to remind them what my actual position is , has been , and remains – AND is OPEN to other proposals as long as they apply equally to both voucher and public.

    My goal is NOT to condemn and blame.. ‘prove’ that government and unions are corrupt and incompetent and then walk away.

    I want to get to a better place – reform, transformation , whatever you want to call it – but NOT burn down and walk away.

    1. It’s rare that I agree with Larry in regards to K-12 education. But I do agree with him that if Virginia is to move toward a system with more charter schools and voucher-funded schools, those schools need to be held to the same standards of accountability as other public schools. We’ve seen how the higher ed industry gave rise to all manner of “career schools,” some of which were legitimate and some of which were run by hucksters. One can easily see the same thing if K-12 education opened up to all comers. As long as public dollars are involved, the state would have a responsibility to taxpayers and students both to ensure that minimum standards are being adhered to.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        well geeze… we do agree and I do feel better about it

        the problem though is at the local level – they spend millions in discretionary money over and above the required match.

        how much do they spend in the low performing schools on higher skilled help – that is in addition to what the Feds provide?

        so the solution is to have the Feds or State have a required local match for Title 1 needs ? how do you force the local school systems to deal with the low income at risk kids ?

        this has always been a problem by the way.. it’s the reason the Feds got involved in Head Start and Title 1 – the localities just refused to… take a minute to read this history of Va schools and their irresponsible attitudes that required Fed and State laws to try to fix.


  10. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    “However I do not see the failure to teach the at-risk kids as a government failure, a union “protection” of “bad” teachers, bad parents nor bad genes.”

    Yeah, you see the issue as needing mo’ money.

    Maybe you should do your Doctorial on why we have at-risk kids and get back to us.

  11. Interesting to find that SOL Gaming earned mention in the editorial columns of the WaPo this morning.

  12. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “In my own life, I was very fortunate when I left home in 1948, at age 17 — a high-school dropout with no skills or experience. At that time, the unemployment rate of black 16- and 17-year-old males was 9.4 percent. For white males the same ages, it was 10.2 percent.

    Why were these unemployment rates so much lower than we have become used to seeing in later times — and with very little difference between blacks and whites? What was different about those times was that the minimum wage, established in 1938, had been rendered meaningless by a decade of high inflation. It was the same as if there were no minimum wage.

    In later years, as the minimum wage was repeatedly raised to keep up with inflation, black teenage unemployment from 1971 through 1994 was never less than three times what it was in 1948, and ranged as high as more than five times the 1948 level. It also became far higher than the unemployment rate of whites the same age.

    The relations between the police and the black community are another issue that has gotten a lot of attention, and produced counterproductive results. After all the rhetoric and all the efforts towards more tightly restraining the police, the net result has been that murder rates have soared in cities where that policy has been followed — and most of the people killed have been black. None of the most popular political panaceas for helping black communities has a track record of making things better, and some have made things much worse.

    The one bright spot in black ghettos around the country are the schools that parents are free to choose for their own children. Some are Catholic schools, some are secular private schools, and some are charter schools financed by public school systems but operating without the suffocating rules that apply to other public schools.

    Not all of these kinds of schools are successes. But where there are academic successes in black ghettos, they come disproportionately from schools outside the iron grip of the education establishment and the teachers’ unions.

    Some of these academic successes have been spectacular — especially among students in ghetto schools operated by the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) chain of schools and the Success Academy schools. Despite all the dire social problems in many black ghettos across the country — problems which are used to excuse widespread academic failures in ghetto schools — somehow ghetto schools run by KIPP and Success Academy turn out students whose academic performances match or exceed the performances in suburban schools whose kids come from high-income families.

    What is even more astonishing is that charter schools are being opposed, not only by teachers’ unions who think that schools exist to provide guaranteed jobs for their members, but also by politicians, including black politicians who loudly proclaim that “black lives matter.”

    Apparently these black children’s futures do not matter enough for black politicians — including the president of the United States — to stand up to the teachers’ unions. The teachers’ unions produce big bucks in campaign contributions and big voter turnout on Election Day.

    Any politician, of any race or party, who fights against charter schools that give many black youngsters their one shot at a decent life does not deserve the vote of anybody who really believes that black lives matter.”

    — Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His website is tsowell.com. © 2016 Creators Syndicate Inc. Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439965/charter-schools-help-black-lives-more-welfare-spending?utm_source=jolt&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Jolt09132016&utm_term=Jolt

  13. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Yeah, you see the issue as needing mo’ money.”

    it might – but it’s more likely priorities for existing money.

    most local school systems in Va spend millions of dollars more than the require state match.

    What have they chosen to spend it on? How much of it towards getting the right kind of qualified teachers that specialize in teaching at-risk kids?

    And oh by the way – I WOULD support paying for performance for this kind of instruction AND I would do it with incentives – the better you produce results – the higher the rewards and I’d do that for team approaches also.. If a whole school voucher or public actually increases scores (real not gamed) – then reward them and encourage them to go for more rewards. make it “pay” to succeed.

    in other words – find ways to get this done better than now… work the issue …. Hold schools accountable for how they choose to spend discretionary funds. right now – local school systems whether they be Alexandria, Norfolk, Henrico or Lynchburg have very, very good schools and very very bad schools in the SAME DISTRICT with the SAME administration – who is in charge of ALL the teachers in that district – … it’s hard to believe that these administrators have chosen to “protect” some bad teachers at some schools and not others… that’s kind of “theory” makes no sense.. no more sense than thinking that in SOME neighborhoods that all the kids in that neighborhood have lower genes than in other neighborhoods..

    but some of us just cling to our ideology …. we’d rather do that – than try to deal with the issue…

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