Slipping through the cracks

Published 5:35 pm Tuesday, January 7, 2020

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VDOE finds achievement gaps among IW students with disabilities


While all nine Isle of Wight County public schools remain accredited for the 2019-2020 school year, the Virginia Department of Education has identified a disparity in performance on the state Standards of Learning tests among students with disabilities, as compared to the pass rate reported for all students at each school in the division.

According to the VDOE School Quality Profiles website,, only 59 percent of students with disabilities at Carrsville Elementary School passed the English SOL during the 2018-2019 school year. Yet the English SOL pass rate for the entire school, including students with disabilities and those without, was 79 percent. The state standard is 75 percent.

On the math SOL, the pass rate among Carrsville students with disabilities was 68 percent, but the pass rate for all students was 89 percent. The state standard for math is 70 percent.

The VDOE refers to such disparities in SOL performance among student demographics as “achievement gaps.” In 2018, the VDOE implemented revised accreditation standards, which now factor in more than just a school’s overall SOL scores. Achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism, defined as a school’s percentage of students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year, are two additional factors.

Schools are then classified into one of three levels based on each factor. 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.”

Despite the gap in performance among students with disabilities, Carrsville still averaged level one ratings in each of the three accreditation factors, and in fact, is exempted from needing to go through annual re-accreditation through the end of the 2020-2021 school year, owing to a three-year waiver it received from the VDOE in 2018. With the exception of Hardy Elementary — which, like Carrsville, is exempted from re-accreditation through 2021 — all other public schools in the county likewise averaged level one or two ratings in each of the accreditation factors, despite showing similar achievement gaps among students with disabilities.

With the exception of Smithfield High School, every public school in the county showed a gap of at least 20 percent between the pass rate for students with disabilities and the average pass rate for all students on the English SOL. For the math SOL, all schools, including SHS, showed a gap of at least 20 percent between the pass rate for students with disabilities and the pass rate for all students.

This is a statewide issue as you can see if you look at the state pass rates for SPED (special education) students compared to overall pass rates,” said Lynn Briggs, spokeswoman for IWCS.

Indeed, statewide 2018-2019 SOL results published on the School Quality Profiles website show that only 47 percent of students with disabilities throughout Virginia passed the English SOL. The statewide pass rate for all students, by comparison, was 78 percent. For the math SOL, the statewide pass rate for students with disabilities is 55 percent, compared to a pass rate of 82 percent for all students.

We are proud that our pass rates for students with disabilities meet or exceed the state [pass rate] in every category at all schools with two exceptions,” Briggs said.

The exceptions are Smithfield High School, which had a 36-percent math SOL pass rate among students with disabilities, and Hardy Elementary, which saw 46 percent of students with disabilities pass the English SOL. It should be noted that Hardy is only 1 percent lower than the statewide pass rate.

The 59-percent pass rate for students with disabilities at Carrsville represents a slight decline in performance from the 67-percent English SOL pass rate reported at the end of the 2017-2018 school year for this same demographic. The 68-percent math SOL pass rate, however, is one percent higher than what the VDOE reported at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

Windsor Elementary School’s pass rate among students with disabilities for the 2018-2019 school year, by comparison, was 61 percent for the English SOL and 59 percent for the math SOL. The average pass rate for all students at Windsor Elementary was 86 percent for English and 90 percent for math.

This, however, is an improvement over the SOL pass rates for Windsor Elementary students with disabilities the VDOE reported at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, which were 48 percent for English and 44 percent for math.

As far as why scores may have increased or decreased, it isn’t a simple answer, because there are numerous variables that factor into each situation,” Briggs said. “We are doing a better job with specially designed instruction that is tailored to each child’s needs and gaps … Our SPED students often have disabilities that may prevent them from learning the same way as other students. They may need more instructional time or assessment time, or additional supports to acquire the skills outlined in the SOLs. Even though we are doing a better job with specialized instruction for each child, we still have room for improvement.”

Another factor that can result in increases or decreases to a school’s pass rate from one year to the next, Briggs said, is population size. Where there are only a few students with disabilities taking the test, the pass rate among those students can swing drastically if just one or two more of those students pass, or don’t pass, the SOL.

For example, she explained, if there are only eight SPED students taking an SOL test and six pass, that would be a 75-percent pass rate. If only five pass the next year, the pass rate would drop to 63 percent.

The population sizes change from year to year and, in our schools with smaller overall populations, the SPED population for a specific test may be a small [number],” Briggs said. “That is a perspective that may be lost when looking at percentages.”

When asked what challenges teachers face when preparing students with different disabilities for the SOLs, Jessica Harding, principal of Georgie D. Tyler Middle School in Windsor, said, “We are tasked with meeting every student where they are, regardless of ability … The biggest challenge in any building is the implementation of school-wide initiatives that target all students regardless of disability status. Teachers having an inclusive mindset with high expectations for all students is the key to school-wide success.

This has been our practice and will continue to be our practice as we meet students at their deficit level, expose them to grade-level standards and make progress toward closing the achievement gap.”