S.P. Morton’s accreditation status downgraded

Published 7:06 pm Tuesday, October 8, 2019

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the accreditation status of Franklin City Public Schools following the Standards of Learning test scores.]


The Virginia Department of Education has downgraded S.P. Morton Elementary School’s status from “accredited” to “accredited with conditions” for the 2019-2020 school year.

Under Virginia’s new accreditation standards, which the VDOE implemented in 2018, public schools are now classified as either “accredited” or “accredited with conditions” based on three indicators: Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism. High schools have two additional indicators: drop out rate and graduation rate, and beginning during the 2021-2022 school year, will also be evaluated on students’ college, career and civic readiness.

Schools are then classified into one of three levels based on each indicator. Level one schools are those performing at or above the state standard. Level two schools are those performing near the state standard, or improving. Level three schools are those performing below the state standard. Schools with all indicators at level one or two are classified as “accredited,” and schools with one or more indicators at level three are classified as “accredited with conditions.”

S.P. Morton appears to owe its new, downgraded status to a sharp decline in science SOL scores. According to Charles Pyle, the VDOE’s director of communications, science SOLs are taken annually by students in the fifth and eighth grades, and by some high school students if needed to earn a verified credit for graduation or to satisfy federal testing requirements. The VDOE’s School Quality Profiles website, schoolquality.virginia.gov, states that 74 percent of fifth graders at S.P. Morton passed the science SOL during the 2017-2018 school year, which earned the school a level one science SOL rating on the new accreditation scale during the 2018-2019 school year, since the state standard is 70 percent. During the 2018-2019 school year, however, S.P. Morton’s pass rate fell to just 45 percent, earning the school a level three science rating.

Dr. Tamara Sterling, superintendent of Franklin City Public Schools, attributes the drop in science scores at S.P. Morton to the departure of a science teacher at that school, who resigned mid-year during the 2018-2019 school year to take a position in another school division. To fill this vacancy, the school reassigned one of its teachers to the fifth grade science position.

“This was not a first-time teacher but it was the first time the teacher had taught science,” Sterling said of the teacher who was reassigned.

Science SOL pass rates, according to Pyle, are still calculated simply by totaling the number of students who score 400 or higher on the test, while making allowances for transfer students and English learners. This is why S.P. Morton’s adjusted pass rate is reported as 45 percent, and its unadjusted pass rate is reported as 44 percent. English and math SOLs, on the other hand, since 2018, have counted non-passing students who improve from their test scores the previous year as passes for the purposes of determining a school’s accreditation status.

As The Tidewater News reported last year, after S.P. Morton achieved accreditation under the VDOE’s new system, the way the new system works for English and math is as follows. If 10 students took an SOL and six passed under the old scoring system, the pass rate would have been reported as 60 percent. Under the new system, if 10 students take an SOL, six pass, and of the four who failed, three showed improvement from last year, the pass rate is reported as 90 percent. For the English SOL, students who speak English as a second language and do not pass, but show improvement on their WIDA Access language proficiency test, are also counted as passes.

Improvement is measured by classifying students who test below 400 into one of four performance levels: below basic low, below basic high, basic low and basic high. For example, if a third grader scores between zero and 280 on the English SOL, he or she would be classified as below basic low. But if that same student, in fourth grade, scores between 278 and 302, he or she would be reclassified as below basic high and be recorded for accreditation purposes as having passed. This creates the slight possibility that a third grader would score 280, and then score two points lower in fourth grade, but still be reported as having shown improvement. The same is true for fourth graders who score 277 (below basic low) and then scores 271 (below basic high) in fifth grade.

Pyle explained, however, that since science SOLs are not given to every grade level, there is no prior-year test data with which to compare current-year science scores. This is why science scores do not take improvement into account.

When asked about plans for improving S.P. Morton’s pass rate on the science SOL this school year, Sterling said Felicia Burkhalter, the division’s director of instruction, is working with instructional specialists to create a plan to support all grade levels. Burkhalter will also work with content-specific teachers to improve their instructional practices and test scores through targeted professional development, weekly professional learning communities (PLCs) and tracking benchmark data.

“Science teachers will develop their practice by utilizing Jason’s Learning, an online science program for grades K-8th grade students, science labs and monthly engineering and STEM labs,” Sterling said.