More Virginia schools meet the state’s full standards of accreditation under a new system that officials trumpet as a better way to judge schools.

The Virginia Department of Education unveiled its annual accreditation ratings Thursday, the first release since the state’s Board of Education revised its standards to shift away from a focus solely on accountability test pass rates.

The new way of grading a school puts results in one of three buckets — formally, numbered levels — that combine to determine a school’s rating. The ratings now take into account growth, achievement gaps and absenteeism, among other things.

With the new system, 92 percent of Virginia’s public schools — 1,683 of 1,821 — are accredited this year, up from 86 percent last year under rules that focused almost entirely on how students fared on Standards of Learning tests. An additional 130 are accredited with conditions, a status once called partially accredited.

No school in the state had its accreditation denied in the first rollout of the new standards, with that label delayed until future years only if a school doesn’t implement a state-monitored improvement plan. Under the old standards last year, 87 schools were denied accreditation, including 19 in Richmond.

“These ratings show that — in the vast majority of our schools — most students are either meeting or exceeding Virginia’s high standards, or they are on their way toward grade-level proficiency,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a statement. “But the ratings also reveal that in many schools, there are achievement gaps undetected by the previous accreditation system.

“Every student in the commonwealth deserves a high-quality educational experience, and we hope that by shining a light on these gaps our schools will continue to develop innovative strategies that result in equitable outcomes for our children.”

An achievement gap is a disparity in performance between different groups of students, such as white students and students of color, and non-disabled students and students with disabilities.

Local scores

In the Richmond region, 86 percent of the 258 schools met the full standards, up from 80 percent last year.

Twelve districts in the region — the counties of Amelia, Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, King William, Louisa, New Kent, Powhatan and Prince George, plus the city of Colonial Heights — had every school rated accredited.

Here’s how each area district fared:

Chesterfield

Falling Creek Middle School, the lone school that prevented Chesterfield from being entirely accredited last year, moved into the top tier of the new ranking system, garnering the division full accreditation.

While Falling Creek fared poorly in its achievement gaps of students with disabilities, it scored in the top level in academic achievement for math, English and science. Falling Creek hadn’t been fully accredited since 2012-13.

“We know that full accreditation is an education benchmark that our community expects, and that it is a status that families look for when deciding where to raise their children,” Chesterfield School Board Chairman John Erbach said in a statement. Erbach represents Falling Creek on the board.

Hanover

Like Chesterfield, every Hanover school is accredited. Last year, Hanover was the only district in the area to have every school fully accredited. Every Hanover school was in the top level for academic achievement, but achievement gaps persisted in 11 of 23 schools in English and 13 schools in math.

“While we celebrate our accomplishments, we are acutely aware that test scores alone do not measure the success or worth of a student, teacher, school, or division,” Superintendent Michael Gill said in a statement. “The new Standards of Accreditation introduced this year reflect this, which is a welcome change.”

Henrico

More schools in Henrico, the local district with the most schools, are accredited this year than last.

All but seven of Henrico’s 67 schools met the state’s full standards this year, an increase from last year when 54 were fully accredited, eight were partially accredited and five were denied accreditation.

Having 60 of 67, or 90 percent, of its schools accredited is the highest number of accredited schools for the district in six years.

“What we see in today’s new ratings is evidence that the hard work of our students, their families and our schools is paying off,” said new Henrico Public Schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell.

The six schools to move from either accreditation denied or partially accredited into the top tier were An Achievable Dream Certified Academy at Highland Springs, and Fair Oaks, Laburnum, Mehfoud, Montrose and Varina elementary schools.

Laburnum Elementary went from being denied accreditation to accredited despite the school’s SOL test scores dropping, in some cases as much as 15 percentage points, in three of the four state testing categories.

Richmond

The bump didn’t make its way to Richmond.

The division has the same number of schools accredited this year as it did last, just 19 of 44. While 19 schools were denied accreditation last year, no schools were this year as 24 were accredited with conditions.

Superintendent Jason Kamras vowed upon taking over the job in February that every school in the district would be accredited within five years.

“That’s the very least our students and families can expect from us,” he said Thursday after the release. “This is an equity issue. No child in Richmond should have to go to a school that doesn’t meet the minimum standards set by the state. Period.”

The Virginia Board of Education voted last week to withhold an accreditation rating from George W. Carver Elementary School, where state investigators found evidence of cheating during the administration of last year’s SOL tests. Carver is the only school in the state to have its accreditation rating withheld.

Petersburg’s since-renamed A.P. Hill Elementary School had its accreditation withheld last year because of a similar cheating scandal but regained its accredited status this year.

The Amelia Street School and Miles Jones Elementary School — both fully accredited last year — took a step back this year and are now accredited with conditions.

The district did have three success stories.

Bellevue Elementary School is accredited after being partially accredited last year, while G.H. Reid and J.L. Francis elementary schools went from being denied accreditation to accredited — two of just three schools in the region to make that jump.

Richmond’s struggles at the secondary level persisted, with none of its seven middle schools or five comprehensive high schools being accredited.

While Richmond didn’t see growth under the new system this year, its urban school district peers did.

About 6 in 10 Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth schools were fully accredited last year under the old system. This year, the figure inched closer to 7 in 10.

New standards

Thursday’s release served as the first look of how the state is judging schools under revisions that officials hope will give a more comprehensive view of the quality of a school.

The system, approved by the Virginia Board of Education last fall, hadn’t seen changes to this scale in the past 20 years.

The new standards don’t include pass rates for English and math, but rather a combined rate, which shows the percentage of students who are meeting state expectations or making significant progress.

The combined rate for English includes students learning English as a second language who show progress toward fluency on a specific ESL assessment.

In high schools, the state is using pass rates because growth can’t be calculated with the end-of-course tests.

Growth measurement takes student test score results and compares them with previous performance.

Schools are also being judged on how they reduced chronic absenteeism, which affects 1 in 10 students across the state, according to a University of Virginia study, with absence rates being worse in Virginia’s urban school districts, including Richmond.

Ratings for high schools depend on similar factors, but also include schools’ graduation rates and dropout rates. Starting in 2021, with a to-be-determined indicator, a school’s ability to prepare students for college and careers will be weighted in the rating.

“The new system is already helping school divisions focus resources where they are most needed to ensure that all children are receiving a high-quality education,” Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker said in a statement. “Rather than putting a label on a school, we are helping schools and the communities they serve set priorities and plan for continuous improvement.”

Performance on each factor is rated at one of three levels. Level one is for those that meet or exceed the state standard or show “adequate” improvement. Level two is for schools that are near the state standard or are making progress from their level three distinction, which is given to the schools that are below standard.

The state standard on English, for example, is a 75 percent pass rate. If a school meets or beats that pass rate, it is on the first level. If it’s near — or between 66 and 74 percent — it’s level two. Level three is for the schools that are below that standard.

Level three is also given to schools that are at level two for more than four straight years.

Those levels ultimately determine a school’s accreditation rating.

If every indicator — proficiency and growth, absenteeism, etc. — is at either level one or two, a school is considered accredited. Schools with one or more level three performances are accredited with conditions.

A school is denied accreditation only if it doesn’t adopt or implement a state-approved corrective action plan to address the poor performance that led to a level three indicator. Under the old standards, a school was denied accreditation if it had four straight years of poor performance that led to the school not being fully accredited.

“This new system provides parents and other members of school communities with a clearer understanding of what schools are doing well and where they need to improve,” Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said.

SOL results

The new accreditation system essentially negated the fact that fewer Virginia students passed SOL tests this year than in years past.

Despite pass rates dropping in all five test areas this year compared with last, the number of accredited schools went up because of the weight put on the new factors — something that likely wouldn’t have happened under the old system.

“If we focus solely on annual pass rates, we miss the achievement of students who are making steady progress toward the benchmarks and the efforts of schools to address issues that directly affect learning and achievement,” said Lane, the state’s highest-ranking K-12 education official, when SOL results were released last month.

The largest drops on SOLs this year were in math and history, where students scored 2 percentage points lower than they did last school year. In reading, 79 percent of state students passed the Standards of Learning tests compared with 80 percent in 2016-17. Writing and science also saw a 1 percentage point dip in pass rates.

Still, 95 percent of schools were in the highest level for math, for example, while 78 percent of schools had pass rates above 70 percent in math this year.

Schools were still rewarded with the favorable title of accredited thanks to the other measures such as growth, low chronic absenteeism and high graduation rates, among other factors.

National context

The issue of measuring growth or proficiency — Virginia’s system now does both — has been debated in education for years, with competing academic research on which is best.

Under No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush-era education initiative, federal funding was based on a school’s ability to reach certain proficiency benchmarks on standardized tests. No Child Left Behind became widely unpopular and by the time of its replacement’s passage, most states were receiving waivers allowing them to miss key elements of the law without any punishments.

That replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gave states flexibility to create their own accountability systems. Virginia’s new structure is the highlight of its ESSA-mandated education plan, whose provisions took effect this year.

Virginia isn’t alone in creating a growth-proficiency hybrid.

More than 4 in 5 states are using growth in addition to the standard academic proficiency or test scores in their ESSA accountability systems, according to Education Week.

While accreditation ratings and SOL results are often used to publicly judge a school in Virginia, they can’t be used to compare schools nationally because they’re unique to Virginia.

Instead, researchers and public officials use the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The test is administered to students in every state — and in the largest U.S. school districts — to make judgments across state lines, but not every student takes the test.

According to NAEP results released earlier this year, Virginia public school students are above the national average.

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jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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