Youngkin Admin Questions Value of School Accreditation Standards

Source: Virginia Department of Education

by James A. Bacon

A Virginia Department of Education press release issued yesterday contained a vitally important message: Virginia’s school accreditation standards are failing to do their job. Despite unprecedented learning losses during the COVID epidemic, the percentage of Virginia public schools meeting the standards fell from 92% pre-COVID to 89% post-COVID, a decline of only three percentage points.

“These ratings call into question the effectiveness of our accreditation standards in identifying schools where students are struggling to achieve grade-level proficiency,” stated Superintendent Jillian Balow. “Frankly, the ratings we are releasing today fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students.”

And how did the legacy media treat this story?

The Washington Post ignored it. Instead, it published a story headlined, “Youngkin’s rules for trans students leave many teens fearful, despondent.” As far as I can tell from the round-up of clips in the VA News aggregator, not one of Virginia’s major metro dailies covered the announcement. The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, the (Harrisonburg) Daily News Record, and WSLS (Roanoke) and WTOP (Washington) were the only legacy media outlets to mention it. Only the two TV stations included the Balow quotes in the body of their stories.

WTOP balanced Balow’s statement with a quote from former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni: “This Governor ran on a manufactured narrative that Virginia schools are failing, and since the new ratings don’t fit his narrative, he wants to manufacture an alternate realty.” Nothing wrong with getting the other side of the story. But instead of going into he said/she said mode, how about recounting the evidence that Balow presented in the press release to back her side of the story?

Under the accreditation system adopted by the state Board of Education in 2017 and implemented the following year, explains VDOE, schools are evaluated on quality indicators grouped in three categories: academic achievement, achievement gaps, and student engagement and outcomes. Performance on each indicator is rated at one of the following levels:

  • Level 1: Meets or exceeds state standard or sufficient improvement.
  • Level 2: Near state standard or sufficient improvement.
  • Level 3: Below state standard.
Source: Virginia Department of Education

“The school quality indicator data and the overall school ratings are skewed by several factors that obscure the impact of the pandemic and school closures,” Balow said. “For example, in English, lower expectations on the reading tests introduced in 2020-2021 and how growth is factored into accreditation resulted in more schools achieving at Level 1 in English than before the pandemic. This masks the catastrophic learning losses experienced by our most vulnerable students.” (My italics.)

Most people don’t understand this: To maintain accreditation, it doesn’t matter how many students in a school fail the SOL tests as long as it can be shown that enough show “growth” in their understanding of a subject.

Says Balow:

Prior to the pandemic, the number of students statewide who failed an SOL reading test but showed growth — and therefore counted toward their school’s accreditation rating — ranged from 19,000-20,000. With this latest round of accreditation calculations, the number has more than tripled to 61,000.

Similarly, the number of students who failed a math SOL test before the pandemic but showed growth and counted toward their school’s rating was about 20,000. This year the number has quadrupled to more than 88,000.

Balow didn’t say it, but I will: the student “growth” measure is a scandal. In many schools, it might even be outright fraud. The determination that a student has demonstrated growth is a highly subjective decision by the teacher, and it is subject to brow-beating by administrators who want to improve their numbers. Standards of Learning tests have elaborate processes to prevent cheating. There is nothing in place to prevent school administrators from fudging the student “growth” data.

The reality is that many students who are said to have shown “growth” have learned almost nothing.

Far from “manufacturing” a narrative, as Qarni claims, the Youngkin administration is shining a spotlight on Qarni’s massive malfeasance during the Northam administration.

If Team Youngkin has done anything wrong here, it has been to understate the depth and breadth of the problem and, perhaps in an effort to avoid sounding partisan, to hesitate calling the malfeasance in bald-faced terms what it really was: the greatest learning loss in modern Virginia history.

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13 responses to “Youngkin Admin Questions Value of School Accreditation Standards”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Youngkin gets credit for doing what is right!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    There is a difference between pointing out these “failures” as a candidate and pointing them out as Governor where doing so means you “own” what needs to be done to fix it.

    It’s an opportunity for leadership but not without some risks also.

    We have seen this with the so-called “Honesty Gap”. The obvious question is what is Youngkin going to do about it now that he is Governor and not candidate?

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Sure. It’s easier to thrown peanuts from the gallery than to slay the dragon.

      So, you can expect Youngkin to spend the next two years saying, “My predecessor really screwed things up, and we will shortly…”

      It’s the state level equivalent of saying, “The only reason they should have raided my house would be to look for the 33,000 emails…

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I am not ready to outright condemn the “growth” measurement. I do not know how it is measured, but done correctly, it could have value. The prime area in which it would be valid is measuring the progress of a student over the course of a year. For example, if a student entered the third grade reading at a year behind that level and completed the third grade reading just below third grade level, the student would be considered as “failing” the SOL despite having made up almost a year’s deficit. In such a case, the teacher should get credit for the child’s progress, rather that being held liable for the child “failing” to read at third grade level.

    Regardless of the measures, there is no doubt that there has been some learning loss and the gaps between racial groups and the advantaged and non-advantaged have increased. Furthermore, the accreditation standards have long been sort of a minimum measurement.

    Larry makes an important observation: At some point, the Youngkin administration needs to stop complaining and announce what measures it is taking to address the problems. It has been in office for about nine months and most of its time in K-12 seems to have been spent obsessing over what names and pronouns students may use and telling some students they cannot use certain bathrooms, although federal courts have said they can.

    By the way, the Richmond Times-Dispatch did sort of cover this story. It came at the very end of another story and was reported offhandedly.

    1. Yes, I agree, in theory student growth measures can be useful. A student may be behind, but if he is “catching up,” that is useful to know and to acknowledge. The problem is that the process of ascertaining student growth is highly subjective and subject to administrative abuse.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Is it subjective? How does VDOE measure growth for these purposes?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Subjectively? Well, maybe.

          What’s the chestnut? If thine eye offends?

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Subjectively? Well, maybe.

          What’s the chestnut? If thine eye offends?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t know how other states handle the issue but the “growth” idea is that the if there is progress being made that, it’s different than no progress or further loss and how it would be handled.

    It’s easy to condemn a failing school but how is it to be fixed to the State’s satisfaction? Perhaps BR could follow that issue with an informative post.

    Across the United States, many schools lost ground during the pandemic. Virginia is not unique and at some point, we need to acknowledge it was/is a pandemic and it had huge impacts on a lot of institutions including the economy and it’s just a reality that pandemics are not something we generally are adept at handling.

    I still continue to believe “virtual” has tremendous potential even for K-12 but it has to be done right and too many schools just simply did not have the expertise and resources that other “online” schools like and Virtual Va have – and they do work for many kids remote, home-schooled and others unable to attend physically.

    And it’s _not_ a “lost generation” either, that’s more hyperbole than real. Many kids will catch up as schools focus on the most important things done first.

    What I do agree with is that the biggest losers who will not catch up as well are the ED kids that were already behind in some schools largely in low income neighborhoods. These kids typically fall further behind that other kids during summer breaks and take longer to catch up and are usually the kids that are involved with schools with accreditation issues.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Weren’t the current accreditation standards a collaborative effort with the DeVos folks and more stringent than those of the feds alone?

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Of course, changing the standards will only create more uncertainty.

    Maybe they can borrow one of these…

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Changing standards is HARD and WILL be reflected as a loss like we’d see if we toughen the SOL pass criteria.

      Is that what Youngkin really wants to do?

      To this point, I don’t think we know what Youngkins/VDOE’s “plan” really is.

      This issue has elements of the proverbial tar baby “effect” but Youngkin has demonstrated he’s no shrinking violet on a range of issues, not fearless and somewhat PR-driven but also not afraid to make changes.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        So long as no one gets him on video saying he’s lying for votes.

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