Angel Lee, a freshman at of Meadowbrook High School, demonstrates how she uses her Chromebook on Thursday March 31, 2016.

White students at Richmond’s Linwood Holton Elementary School fared far better on state math tests this year than black students. The same achievement gap appeared in test scores for economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

The large disparity — 33 percentage points for white vs. black students — resulted in the lowest level designation a school can receive in that category, one of six factors the state uses to determine an elementary school’s accreditation rating.

Under a system rolled out this year, a single classification that low should prevent a school from being accredited. But some schools received exemptions thanks to state policy.

Holton and six other schools in the Richmond region, including three in Chesterfield County, that didn’t meet the state’s standards are still accredited this year because of a state policy that awards accredited status based on past performance. An additional three schools in the region, including a Hanover County middle school and a Henrico County high school, would not be accredited had they been judged by the new system — instead, they were judged under prior standards during this transition year.

“The question of gaps and equity has been an area of focus for [Superintendent Jason Kamras] and us anyway, so we’re pleased that the new Standards of Accreditation shine a light on achievement gaps for subgroups,” said Richmond Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp. “By shining a light on these gaps, it allows us to work with our schools and our teachers to outline strategies and plans to address those gaps. The previous system didn’t really help us shine a light on that.”

The Virginia Department of Education released its annual accreditation ratings last week, showing that 92 percent of Virginia’s public schools — 1,683 of 1,821 — are accredited this year, up from 86 percent last year. That gain would be negated had all schools been judged on this year’s performance.

A school’s rating now depends on more than just test pass rates in a system that also accounts for student academic growth, absenteeism rates and achievement gaps, among other things.

Each factor has three possible scores, with lower scores being better: Level One if the school’s performance meets or exceeds the state standard; Level Two if it’s near the state standard or improving; and Level Three if it’s below the state standard or if performance is at Level Two for more than four straight years.

Schools are now rated as either accredited, accredited with conditions or accreditation denied. No schools were denied accreditation in the first year of the new system.

If every indicator is at either Level One or Level Two, a school is considered accredited. Schools with one or more Level Three performances are accredited with conditions.

While 1,683 schools are accredited, 7 percent, or 116 of those schools, are accredited only because of previous performance. An additional 31 were rated accredited because they met the state’s previous standards for full accreditation, a status that only exists under this transitional year.

The underlying data of the schools’ performance show at least one factor is below the state standard, which would normally mean a score of Level Three. A single Level Three is enough to move a school from accredited to accredited with conditions under the new system. But that’s not always the case.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the state’s Board of Education reviews a school’s accreditation status once every three years if that school had been fully accredited for three straight years. If the school meets the full standards, it remains accredited for the following three years regardless of its scores, state law says.

Changes to the law must be approved by the General Assembly. The part of the state code that spells out the ways other than yearly performance that schools can receive accreditation was last updated in 2016.

Seven schools in the region have the three-year waivers.

Carver College and Career Academy, Matoaca Middle School and Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield all would have been accredited with conditions if not for the waivers, the state Education Department said. Carver had too low of a graduation rate, Matoaca had large achievement gaps in math and English, and Meadowbrook had a dropout rate that was too high, state figures show.

Chesterfield schools spokesman Shawn Smith declined to acknowledge the schools wouldn’t be accredited without the state’s prior performance caveat.

“They are accredited under current rules for accreditation [without conditions],” he said in an email.

Shown the schools’ Level Three indicators, which would prevent a full accreditation rating without the past performance rule, he stuck to his previous statement.

“Again, these three schools are accredited under current rules for accreditation [without conditions],” he said.

He added Thursday: “Through our School Improvement and Innovation plans, we continuously monitor the progress our schools are making. These strategies and other academic supports that are available provide a plan for targeting areas of needed improvement.”

The same rule would have meant King William High School, Powhatan High School and Powhatan Middle School also would have been accredited with conditions, according to the state.

Holton Elementary School in Richmond was the only city school in that situation.

An additional 31 schools got the top-tier rating because they were accredited through the old set of rules. For this first year of the new system, the state accredited those schools for meeting either last year’s standards or multiple indicators under this year’s rules as a transition year grace period.

Economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities at Liberty Middle School in Hanover County underperformed their peers on English tests, an achievement gap that led to a Level Three rating for one of Hanover’s four middle schools.

“Our primary focus remains upon meeting the needs of every student to close achievement gaps,” Hanover schools spokesman Chris Whitley said in an email. “We have concentrated our work in these areas for many years and will continue to do so, at Liberty Middle School, as well as at our remaining twenty-four schools, in an effort to improve continuously.”

At Highland Springs High School in Henrico, nearly 1 in 10 students dropped out — slightly less than double the state average — leading to a Level Three indicator.

“All of our schools remain focused on meeting the needs of all students. Where there are specific areas that may need to be addressed, school administrative teams are doing so through Virginia’s Continuous School Improvement Plan process,” Henrico schools spokesman Andy Jenks said. “In other words, no matter what school it is, in Henrico, we’re always in a continuous improvement mode.”

No matter a school’s rating, it’s required to develop a state-monitored improvement plan.

Madison Elementary School in Caroline County was also accredited through the old accreditation rules.

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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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