A new standard of accountability for Virginia’s public schools

Published 12:13 pm Saturday, July 15, 2017

by Diane Atkison

Last month my colleagues on the Virginia Board of Education and I took a historic vote to fundamentally change the way Virginia accredits public schools and chooses to intervene when schools fail to meet state standards. Although school accreditation is technical and, to be candid, a bit wonky, this major reform effort has been underway for over a year and is important for citizens of the commonwealth to understand.

But before we can understand the new system, we need to begin with our current structure.

At present, the state accredits each school based on the percentage of students passing Virginia’s standardized end-of-year SOL tests — and, for high schools, the graduation rate.

A school’s results then translate into a dizzying array of accreditation “statuses” based on how long the school had performed or underperformed. Currently, it takes years of underperformance to prompt a conversation with the state about what kinds of technical assistance or interventions might be needed to help students, teachers and school leaders improve.

At the time that our standards, tests, and accreditation system were initially developed in Virginia, they were revolutionary in ensuring all students in Virginia received a high-quality public education. Over the past 20-plus years, state policymakers have refined the system, continued to raise academic expectations, and driven high-quality educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, our system has also had a number of unintended consequences. The sole emphasis on test results has contributed significantly to high-stakes testing environments. The system also fails to account for any progress a student has made — a significant indicator of the quality of a student’s learning environment. Finally, that accreditation system fails to reflect the achievement gaps for students of color and economically disadvantaged students — gaps that need our attention.

In the past year, members of the Board of Education have carefully examined the limitations of our system and what we have learned through school improvement efforts. We have explored alternative models, read the research correlating other indicators to long-term student success, and developed guiding principles for a new system.

These principles are straightforward. We want a system that better reflects a school’s quality, drives continuous improvement, and helps guide early and targeted interventions for struggling schools.

The new system we are proposing meets those criteria and more. Under this proposed system, schools will be held to the same rigorous academic standards, but will also be accountable for a number of other outcomes such as student growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates, and chronic absenteeism. These indicators were selected by the board because of their direct relationship to student success. This new system comes with an expectation that every school will be striving continuously to improve in each of these areas.

Our proposal also overhauls how a school ultimately earns accreditation. We have redefined these terms and have moved away from a system in which it is easy to become a “failing” school but then hard to move out of that status, and even harder to ever shake that “failing” perception. Far too often, we see schools making remarkable progress with students, but the system fails to recognize their growth, perpetuating the idea that principals, teachers, and students were unsuccessful. We also know that having denied accreditation makes it nearly impossible to recruit strong principals or teachers, who are the most powerful components of high-quality student learning.

Under our new system, we will have only three accreditation statuses: accredited, accredited with conditions, and denied accreditation. Schools that meet or are making appropriate progress toward the benchmarks will be accredited. Those schools that are either significantly below the performance benchmarks or are not making appropriate progress will be accredited with conditions. We have entirely redefined “accreditation denied” and will assign it to schools in which the leadership has failed to implement necessary steps to improve teaching and learning. A school’s accreditation status will no longer hinge solely on the test scores of its 8-year-olds on a given day in May. While scores are certainly important, we have learned that they are a part of a much bigger picture that needs to be understood for change to be effectuated.

Over the next two months, board members will be traveling around the state hosting public hearings on this proposed system to further refine it through direct input from community members.

Citizens are invited to join us at those hearings and/or to submit comments online at the Virginia Department of Education website.

Virginia’s public education system is a shared responsibility amongst us all, one that requires us to continually re-examine its foundation and make changes as needed. Change is never easy, but in the case of Virginia’s accreditation system, the time has come to build a stronger, more comprehensive, yet equally rigorous system that supports the success of all our students and each of our schools.

DIANE T. ATKINSON was appointed to the Virginia State Board of Education in 2012 and serves as chairman of the board’s Committee on School and Division Accountability. Contact her at Diane.Atkinson@comcast.net.