Schools prepare for new accreditation rules

For years Virginia school quality has been judged by student success on standardized tests and graduation rates.

That could change next year.

The Virginia Board of Education's proposed rewrite of its Standards for Accreditation, judging how well schools are helping students, includes non-academic measurements and gives credit for growth year-to-year.

"What's clear … is the why — this is to focus on continuous improvement rather than just a school's performance at one moment in time," said Scott Thorpe, Williamsburg-James City County's assistant superintendent. "Our goal is to continuously improve and our belief is that no matter where we are, we need to improve from that current reality."

Annual Standards of Learning exams in four topics, coupled with graduation rates in high schools, have largely determined where schools fall on the state's accreditation scale — from fully accredited, partially accredited or denied accreditation.

All W-JCC and York County schools were fully accredited in 2016 and will keep that status through 2018-19, according to a VDOE memo. Beginning in 2016 schools will be judged every three years, meaning those that were accredited for three consecutive years prior are given the fully accredited status for three more years. If a school dips below the accreditation standards it will go back to being judged annually.

Growth, not targets

The new accountability system could make it easier for schools to be given credit for growth, Thorpe said.

While SOL scores and graduation rates are still part of the formula, dropout rates, achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism are "school quality indicators" accounted for in the new guidelines, according to the board-approved draft of the new standards.

Within each category, a school could be deemed above standard or level one, near standard or level two, or below standard at level three.

"We can meet accreditation with each of these indicators through either hitting a target, or by growing, and that's really different from the way it is now," Thorpe said.

For SOL scores, a school must have a certain percent of its students pass on each topic. For the Math SOL, a level one school would have a pass rate higher than 70 percent and a level two school would have a rate higher than 66 percent. A level three school's rate would be less than that.

But with the new guidelines, a school could get credit by decreasing its SOL failure rates by 10 percent, according to the draft.

Growth in graduation rates could also bump a school up the scale. A level one school could have the required rate of 88 percent or better, or have been below that and increased its rate by 2.5 percent from the prior year.

"I do think there's more emphasis on student growth rather than just hitting a target and I think that's very important," said Olwyn Herron, W-JCC superintendent. "Very often there's not credit for doing that so it's going to give credit for progress."

What's new

Graduation rates will be judged alongside dropout rates in the new standards.

A level one school must have a current or three-year average rate less than 6 percent or be a level two school and have decreased its dropout rate by 2.5 percent from the prior year. A level two school has a dropout rate between 6 and 9 percent.

W-JCC's Warhill, Jamestown, Lafayette high schools and York's Bruton High each have dropout rates less than 5 percent, according to 2015-16 VDOE data.

More attention will be paid to subpopulations of students — economically disadvantaged students, members of major racial or ethnic groups, students with disabilities and English language learners.

The new rules would require schools to track and report achievement gaps in student pass rates, such as how Hispanic students' SOL rates compare to their white or African-American counterparts.

There can't be significant difference in levels when comparing subgroup SOL pass rates in Math and English. Having subgroups not meet the SOL benchmarks even if taken together could bring a school down a level or two.

While Warhill and Jamestown would likely be at Level One for Math SOL pass rates, Lafayette would probably be a level three because five subgroups did not meet the level two 66 percent pass rate, based on 2015-16 VDOE data. All three schools averaged more than 70 percent passing in 2015-16.

"We have opportunities to improve subgroup performance," Thorpe said. "Strategies are going to be targeted to groups, and not just looking at a target in one year but looking over a series of three years."

Absenteeism

The VDOE chose to include a non-academic indicator, chronic absenteeism, to use when judging school quality. Students who miss more than 10 percent of the school year — or 18 days — for any reason will bring a schools' score down.

It's not something schools tracked before now, W-JCC coordinator of accountability and assessment Melissa Bentley said.

"The chronic absenteeism, while it's going to change how we monitor and store data. I think it's the right thing to do. I think it's a positive step forward to us," Bentley said. "We know that attendance is a problem for some students and families so this is really going to help us focus on it, especially by putting it into our school improvement plans."

The benchmark is having less than 15 percent of a schools' population chronically absent — a target Berkeley Middle School and all three W-JCC high schools miss.

Most of the new standards go into effect for 2018-19; in 2017-18 schools will be judged by whichever system — new or old — favors them more.

There is also a college, career and civic readiness index to measure advanced classwork and career and technical education courses and credentials. That indicator may not be implement right away, but must be included by 2021-22.

Public hearings on the new accreditation standards are underway. W-JCC officials plan to attend the nearest one in Virginia Beach.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Public hearing

6:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Old Dominion School at 4633 Honeygrove Road, Virginia Beach.

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