Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Justice for Whom?

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which has released another report decrying differential rates of suspensions and expulsions in Virginia public schools, is described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as an organization that “works to fight injustice.” I have no doubt that the Legal Aid Justice Center sees itself on the side of the angels, but I’m surprised that the Times-Dispatch accepts the group’s self definition so uncritically. I’ve never heard of an organization anywhere claiming to fight for “injustice.” It’s really a question of whose justice is being fought over.

In this case, the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights for “justice” for black students who commit offenses that get them suspended or expelled. Making an issue out of the fact that blacks were suspended in Virginia about four times as often as Hispanic or white students in 2015-16, the LAJC calls for sweeping changes in school disciplinary policies and, of course, more money to implement them.

The LAJC is not fighting for “justice” for black children whose classrooms are disrupted by trouble makers. While the organization goes to great pains to measure the rates of suspensions and expulsions by race, it makes no effort whatsoever to measure the race of those whose educations are deprived by the ne’er-do-wells. Indeed, its report, “Suspended Progress 2017,” shows no interest in their plight whatsoever.

The front-page Times-Dispatch article quotes extensively and uncritically from the LAJC report. The reporter doesn’t quote anyone else who has studied school disciplinary issues, nor does he quote anyone from the Virginia Department of Education or local school districts. The reporter never informs the reader that parents — including many black parents — are often dismayed by the lack of discipline in many schools.

The report found that Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students in 2015-16, an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year after several years of declines. Virginia schools use “exclusionary” discipline with very young students at an “astonishing” rate, states the report. And the majority of suspensions were issued for minor offenses — “approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given [were] for behavior offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.”

Perhaps most disturbing is that Virginia schools continue to disproportionately suspend African-American students and students with disabilities. The suspension rate for African-American students was 3.8 times larger than for Hispanic and white students. Students with disabilities were suspended at a rate 2.6 times larger than that of their non-disabled peers. When examining the effects of race, sex, and disability, the results are especially troubling: African-American male students with disabilities were almost 20 times more likely to be suspended than white female students without disabilities.

The authors never talk to anyone in the educational front lines — the people meting out the discipline — to get their perspective on what’s happening. The authors assume from the get-go that racial disparities in disciplinary actions are in and of themselves evidence of injustice — no other explanation needed.

The LAJC never pauses to consider that the reason why African-American male students with disabilities are disciplined at a higher rate is that they are committing offenses at a higher rate than white female students without disabilities. Given what we know of the breakdown of the family, the geographic concentration of poverty, and how many poor single mothers lose their children to “the street,” it should not surprise anyone that behavior problems are rampant in poor communities generally and poor African-American communities specifically.

This chart, which appears in the “Suspended Progress” report, shows the school districts where the highest rates of suspensions occur. Every one of these has high percentages, often majorities, of African-American students. Let’s take the City of Richmond, with which I have some familiarity. Most teachers are African-American, most principals are African-American, the superintendent is (or was, before he was canned for political reasons) African-American, and the school board is predominantly African-American. It defies reason to think that anti-African-American bias is permeating Richmond school disciplinary practices.

The real problem is that teachers and administrators in Richmond are grappling with large numbers of students who come from exceedingly challenging environments like housing projects riddled with violence, drugs, crime, and murder where the norms of bourgeois behavior have utterly collapsed. Eighteen percent of the student body was suspended because 18% of the student body committed offenses against school rules.

The LAJC engages in a classic case of defining deviancy down by declaring that cell phone possession, disrespect, and “inappropriate language” as “minor” offenses. We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid, but I can assure you that being disrespectful to teachers and using profanity assuredly would have warranted disciplinary action at my school. The phrase “inappropriate language” sounds inoffensive, but I question whether students are suspended for using the occasional profanity. As for cell phone possession, the LAJC’s own data shows that the number of students disciplined for that offense is a minor cause of short-term suspensions and a negligible one of long-term suspensions.

The biggest causes of disciplinary action are disruption of classrooms or campus, defiance of authority, disrespecting teachers. Some offenses may seem “minor” if viewed in isolation. But we have no sense from these numbers how often similar offenses are routinely ignored, and we have no sense how often students have been lectured or given second or third chances before finally being slapped with a disciplinary action.

I find especially noteworthy the LAJC’s observation that after two years of supposedly improving statistics that suspensions and expulsions have increased for two years. How do we explain this? Have teachers and administrators become less rigorous in their adherence to the protocols imposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Obama administration justice department? Have they become more biased in their attitudes against African-American (but not Hispanic) students? Or has discipline gotten worse under those protocols? Have the supposedly “proven alternatives” like “restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of support, and emotional learning programs” failed to maintain discipline? Indeed, do misbehaving students, perceiving that they are less likely to suffer adverse consequences from their actions under the new regime, felt freer to act disruptively?

Locked into its mindset that views every racial disparity as evidence of a social injustice, LAJC never asks those questions. But Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters and editors should not accept social justice warrior dogma without question. In fact, if the Times-Dispatch were truly interested in social justice, it would conduct its own inquiry into how LAJC-inspired disciplinary policies are working out.

Reform the SOLs, Don’t Kill Them

Cranky begs to differ with the Big Bacon.

Honorable Sir!

Your Jeremiad on the Standards of Learning testing makes five basic points and concludes that it’s time to “scrap the SOLs and move on.” I’d like to mostly agree with your five points and suggest some different conclusions.

SOL Results Have Guided Home Purchase Decisions, With the Effect of Harming Low-Performing Schools

That is almost certainly true.

There is a plethora of Web sites dedicated to reporting score results – even one from the Department of Education. And surely one reason there are few school-age children in my Richmond neighborhood and many in your Henrico enclave is the quality of the schools.

Would you then have parents rely upon word-of-mouth rather than actual data in selecting a place to raise the family?  Would you conceal the performance of this appalling middle school from the parents who are paying the taxes to support its gross failure to educate their children?

It’s not the job of parents to harm their kids by sending them to an awful school in order to improve the school. It’s the job of the school board and the Board of Education to fix the awful schools. And it is far past time to hold the school, the school board, and the education board accountable if they don’t deal with problems such as the example in the link above.

To do that we must have a quality measurement. As one of your commenters pointed out, the education establishment loves to measure inputs: money, facilities, credentials. But those things don’t measure productivity. For sure the SOL is imperfect but it’s the only productivity measure we have at hand. We should be thinking of ways to deal with the imperfections, not relapsing to a system where the only quality measures do not in fact measure quality.

The SOL Penalizes Poverty

It’s clear that children from economically disadvantaged households underperform their more affluent peers on the SOL tests. It’s also clear that some school systems with large ED populations perform better (or worse, e.g., Richmond) than others.

Thus, the bare SOL pass rate is not a fair measure of school quality.

Should we then abandon measurement of educational quality or should we look to improve the measure?

If fact, we have a better measure that is essentially unaffected by economic disadvantage, the Student Growth Percentile. The State tells us:

A student growth percentile expresses how much progress a student has made relative to the progress of students whose achievement was similar on previous assessments.

A student growth percentile complements a student’s SOL scaled score and gives his or her teacher, parents and principal a more complete picture of achievement and progress. A high growth percentile is an indicator of effective instruction, regardless of a student’s scaled score.

And a low SGP tells us that the kid didn’t learn much in comparison to the other students who started in the same place. See this for a discussion of the way the SGP illuminated the awful productivity of some of Richmond’s teachers.

Yet our Board of “Education” has abandoned the SGP.  See this (scroll down to Part F) for a discussion of their bogus reasons.

Bottom line: We know the SOL is unfair to less affluent kids. We know how to correct for that effect but our Board of “Education” doesn’t want to use the tool that does that.  Is that a problem with the SOL or a problem with the Board?

Cheating

There is a long and ugly history of Virginia schools cheating to improve SOL scores. See this for a particularly cynical example. Go here and search for “cheat” to be inundated with data on the subject.

But is this a problem with the SOL testing or with the schools and the Board of Education?

If we take it that it’s crucial to have a measure of educational output, then we’ll have to be prepared to deal with attempts to skew the data. The (unacceptable) alternative is to forget about measuring teaching quality and to let far too many children be harmed by inadequate teaching.

Teaching to the Test

You, and others, condemn the SOL because it encourages teaching to the test. In fact that is not a problem; it is part of the reason for having the SOL. Continue reading

Scrap the SOLs and Move On

Maybe it’s time for Virginia to scrap the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

The SOLs arose in the mid-1990s as a way to provide feedback to the community on how well local schools were performing. It was a worthy experiment. Despite massive increases in spending in preceding years, the quality of education in United States was widely seen as deficient. Backers hoped that transparency would provide teachers, principals, school boards, parents and citizens data they could use to work toward the betterment of their schools.

As with so many reforms enacted with the best intentions, this initiative has gone terribly awry. There is little evidence that SOLs improve anything. Indeed, insofar as the standardized exams encourage teachers to “teach to the test” — more on that in a bit — they may do actual harm.

In short order after their enactment, the SOLs morphed into a means to hold schools “accountable” for poor performance. Schools with low levels of academic achievement were highlighted in local media reports and shamed for failing their students. Newspapers published SOL data for schools within their circulation zones, and parents used the data to guide home purchasing decisions. As parents voted with their feet, affluent households displaced poor households in “good” school districts, and poor households gravitated by default to the “bad” schools. In sum, the tests arguably had the unintended effect of aggravating residential inequality and making it harder for poor schools to improve.

Comparing schools with one another was problematic anyway because educational achievement is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, the mix of affluent and poor children varied widely by school, and average scores reflected socioeconomic status as much as the quality of the teachers and staff. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) possessed the data to adjust scores for socioeconomic status so as to not unfairly penalize low-income schools but, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the department stopped publishing it.

Meanwhile, many teachers, principals and school boards learned how to game the system to dress up scores and avoid the shaming. John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, and I have chronicled numerous scandals around the state — the relaxed test standards, the teacher coaching, the classification of sub-performing students as disabled, and sometimes the outright cheating. Newspaper accounts tend to treat these phenomena as isolated instances that happen to occur in their back yard, but they are in fact commonplace.

Perhaps the most insidious gaming of the system involves teaching to the test. As has been explained to me, the SOLs do not test students’ comprehensive knowledge in a particular subject. Rather, they sample knowledge in sub-topics and assume that if a test-taker gets the answers right for those sub-topics, they will demonstrate the same mastery across the board. Over the years, teachers have learned, to pick an example, that the math SOL will address regular polygons but not irregular polygons, so they spend more time teaching regular polygons and perhaps even skip the irregular polygons. Thus, insofar as teachers teach to the test, meaning that they emphasize certain topics over others, SOLs actually may encourage educational malpractice.

As the emphasis has shifted to holding schools accountable for poor performance, VDOE began using SOL scores to declare schools accredited or unaccredited. (There are various flavors of being unaccredited, depending upon whether schools are deemed to be making progress.) While the state can declare a school “unaccredited,” under the state constitution, schools answer to their school boards. The state does negotiate “Memoranda of Understanding” with chronic laggards but, as Butcher has documented, MOUs consist of educratic mumbo jumbo and are useless in turning schools around. At the end of the day, and not for any lack of trying, accountability remains elusive.

Virginia has doggedly tried to make SOLs work for more than twenty years now. We have enough experience under our belts, I would argue, to draw some broad conclusions. SOLs are deficient as a means of measuring students’ academic achievement; if anything, the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon hurts students. SOLs are useless as a means for improving schools’ academic performance or holding administrators accountable for results; teachers and principals are endlessly creative at gaming the system. And, by influencing people of means to buy houses near “good” schools, SOLs arguably have become an unwitting driver of socioeconomic and racial segregation.

I’m not saying that things will miraculously improve if Virginia did away with the SOLs. They exist for a reason. But we must acknowledge that tweaking and nudging a broken system won’t work either. I don’t have any great suggestions for what we put in place of SOLs. I can say that reform should be bottom-up, not top-down, and it should encourage creativity and experimentation. Failed experiments should be shut down, and successes should be replicated. We cannot afford more business as usual.

School Accreditation Process Violates State Law

Some unfortunate Virginia Department of Education administrator will be tasked with the job of poring through the public responses to proposed rules for granting and denying public-school accreditation. I would pay good money to watch his hair catch on fire when he reads the comments submitted by John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog. Here’s how John summarizes the accreditation process:

“VA. Code § 22.1-253.13:3.A provides:

“[The Boar of Education’s] regulations establishing standards for accreditation shall ensure that the accreditation process is transparent and based on objective measurements. …

“The current accreditation process is in wholesale violation of that law:

  • The Board increases pass rates at some high schools based on the performance of students who do not attend those schools;
  • The Board fails to adjust accreditation scores for a major factor known to affect test scores, poverty, and the Board has abandoned its measure of academic progress, the Student Growth Percentile, that is not affected by poverty;
  • The Board’s indifference to misclassification of students as “disabled” and the abuse of relaxed testing procedures for those students continues; and
  • The Board’s opaque and byzantine ‘adjustments’ increase accreditation.”

Read the short version of his comments here. Or read the full and unadulterated version here.

New Cause for Alarm: Too Many White Teachers, Not Enough Black

Source: “Report on the Recommendations of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline.”

Seeking to close the educational achievement gap between whites on the one hand and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other, the Virginia Department of Education has found a new focus: an insufficient number of “teachers of color.”

Even as the number of minorities in Virginia schools now equal the number of whites, Virginia’s teachers are becoming “less diverse over time,” states a report of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline made to the Virginia Board of Education. “Demographically, minority students make up 48.7 percent of Virginia’s student population, but only 21.4 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities. Research indicates that a racially representative mix of teachers and administrators can be directly correlated to positive educational outcomes for minority students.”

In Virginia’s school system, diversity has become an end unto itself. “All Virginia students benefit personally and intellectually when they learn from education professionals with a variety of racial, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds,” states the report. “We believe there is value in all students learning from teachers with diverse backgrounds; and we simultaneously recognize that research indicates there is a unique role teachers of color play in improving the lives of students of color.”

The task force says Virginia should endeavor reduce the gap between the percentage of minority students and the percentage of minority teachers, now 27%, to 15% by  by 2040.

There are two problems, states the report. First, according to national statistics, teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than whites: 18.9% per year turnover in 2012-13 compared to 15% for white teachers. Second, the percentage of minority students enrolled in education schools is declining. “Minority enrollment in Virginia’s teacher preparation programs has fallen from more than 50 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to only 33 percent in 2016-2017.”

The task force’s proposed solution is to remove barriers to minority students seeking to become teachers. The conventional pathway to the teaching profession entails a five-year program for a B.A. and M.A., during the course of which the average Virginia teacher will have accrued $50,879 in debt. States the report: “When combined with low teacher pay, the high cost of training is a powerful deterrent for young people considering a future in the teaching profession.”

The state should revise its criteria so that students can become teachers through development of a four-year undergraduate major. Also, Virginia should provide financial assistance for minority teaching candidates, give student teaching stipends to low-income students, and devise innovative ways to provide compensation to student teachers during their student-teaching experience. Other solutions include encouraging minority high school students to become teachers and making more of provisional licensure.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. It’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the bedrock assumption that “diversity” among teachers is a meaningful determinant in the educational outcomes of students. I’d like to evaluate the “research” that stands behind this proposition as well as any that might contradict it. If the ethnic identity of teachers and students is so crucial, I’d especially like to see how the research explains that Asian-American students consistently out-perform whites academically even though the number of Asian-American teachers is a tiny percentage of the whole.

But let’s accept the report on its own terms, including the proposition that the ethnic identity of the teacher matters. One might ask why minority teachers leave the teaching profession at a higher rate than white teachers. Do we know why they are leaving? Has anyone asked the minority teachers why they are leaving? The Task Force does not consider option of reducing teacher turnover, choosing to focus exclusively on the supply of new students.

Interestingly, the Task Force might have a point about the educational pathway for new teachers. Perhaps the requirements are too high — not just for minority teachers but all teachers. After all, as the task force notes, the problem schools have recruiting minority teachers is just a sub-set of the difficulty they have recruiting teachers in general. Who put these barriers into place? Did the Virginia Teachers Association play a role? Assuredly, the justification proffered for instituting more demanding standards was to improve the quality of teachers, but according to public choice theory, the hidden purpose was to restrict the supply of new teachers. Labor shortages give teachers more power to mau-mau state and local government for higher salaries and  benefits. If the Task Force prompts legislators to take a look at the entire system of teacher credentialing, it might have done us all a favor.

The high cost of getting a teaching degree also circles back to a perennial issue of interest to Bacon’s Rebellion — the excessive cost of education. Why is it so expensive to teach students how to teach? What is going on inside Virginia’s schools of education? Should not part of the solution be to bring tuition back to  reasonable levels?

The Task Force addresses none of the broader issues, and that’s a missed opportunity. Among all the factors that influence academic achievement among African-Americans and Hispanics, I would be willing to bet that the ethnic mix of teachers is secondary at best. I would be amazed if closing the ethnicity gap between teachers and students has any measurable effect whatsoever. Indeed, the obsession with racial bean counting strikes me as part of what is wrong with public education today.

How Long Must Parents Wait?

Vernon Johns Middle School in Petersburg — new building, same sad results

by Chris Braunlich

In a recent news release, Governor Terry McAuliffe heralded the fact that 86 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited – “a record high” for his administration and a five point improvement over last year.

He neglected to mention that 88 schools failed accreditation – a 203 percent increase in unaccredited schools over last year, and more unaccredited schools this year than in the previous ten years combined.

In a new poll by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center, the most important issue most voters want the next Governor to work on is “improving K-12 education.” Improving educational quality for the children in those 88 schools ought to be a top consideration.

Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. New building, same old education.

Thirteen schools have failed accreditation for three years or more. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra “Executive Leadership” funding at Petersburg, the students of Vernon Johns Middle School are attending an unaccredited school for the twelfth consecutive year. Despite a new $44.2 million school building, the child who entered first grade six years ago at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary has now spent her entire school career in an unaccredited school.

If anything, this year’s accreditation list points up two things –

First, the divide in education is growing. Good schools on the right track with the right leadership are getting better. Poorly performing schools without the right kind of leadership continue to decline. And continued geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth have all too often meant different tracks for the schools those children attend.

The second is that the state seems powerless to do anything to help the children in these schools. And while that may seem like an excuse, the reality is that the Virginia Constitution requires that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” Worse, past court decisions have given local school boards nearly unfettered control over buildings, budgets, curriculum, and personnel – even if they run it into the ground.

To its credit, the State Board of Education’s proposed new regulations ratchet up the consequences for non-performing schools and school divisions, including the threat of withholding a limited amount of state funding. But the process is long, case by case and thin gruel compared with the dramatic and decisive action so badly needed. Besides which, “state takeovers” have a spotty track record — partly because states rarely take the time to rebuild school culture.

One alternative is to authorize new quality public schools run by successful educators, but outside the traditional system. And there are such schools defying the “demography is destiny” mantra. The problem: They aren’t in Virginia.

Today, 7,000 public charter schools serve 3 million students. While not a panacea, their track record with low-income children is striking: According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), after four years in a charter school, urban students learn 50 percent more per year than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.

In New York, 95 percent of Success Academy’s students are children of color whose families have an average income of $32,000 per year. In math, 95 percent of them passed the state exams and 84 percent passed reading, outperforming every school district in the state, including those with median family incomes of $290,000.

KIPP Academies educates 88,000 students in 209 schools – 95 percent of them black or Latino and 88 percent of them on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies. Eighty-one percent enter college and they graduate college at a pace four times the rate of their peers.

But these and other successful charter schools won’t come to Virginia, citing the Commonwealth’s “restrictive charter school law that limits autonomy and makes it impossible for high quality charter schools to fulfill their mission.” And without alternatives, parents will never be able to send their children to a public charter school opening the doors of opportunity for Virginia’s neediest students.

A measure earlier this year might have cracked that door a bit, had it been signed into law. It would have allowed the State Board of Education to authorize a new school board – an overlay of sorts – that could only target areas with one or more schools that repeatedly failed accreditation.

And while it would not have touched existing schools or local funding, it would have empowered the State Board to meet its own constitutional responsibility for the “supervision of the public school system,” taken steps toward the constitutional aspiration of “an educational program of high quality,” and helped several thousand low-income children who now have no quality choices.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, shooting down educational justice for the children of places like Petersburg, Norfolk and Newport News.

As the voters who place a premium on K-12 education think about the issues, they should consider this: The parents of children in high-performing schools are rarely concerned about choices: They’ve already made theirs.

But how long must the parents of children in persistently low-performing schools wait to have better opportunities for their child? Four years? Six? A dozen years? How long?

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. This column was published originally in The Jefferson Journal, and a version of it in the Virginian-Pilot.

Bacon Bits: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Source: 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report. (Click for more legible image.)

U.S. still globally competitive. The United States has climbed past Singapore  to become the world’s second most competitive economy — second only to Switzerland, according to the 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. U.S. strengths are its technological progress, capacity for innovation, and sophistication of its business enterprises — all private sector attributes, I might observe. The nation’s weaknesses are primary education, healthcare and “macroeconomic environment,” which reflects the sustainability of government finances. Tax rates are cited as the most problematic aspect of doing business in the U.S. The weaknesses, I might add, are all government failures.

Worst traffic jams in the country. The Washington metropolitan area has the sixth worst traffic congestion in the country, according to INRIX Roadway Analytics, but the single-worst traffic hot spot anywhere is a southbound stretch of Interstate 95 between Washington, D.C., and Fredericksburg, reports the Free Lance-Star. I totally believe it — and the northbound lanes aren’t much better.

Richmond still leads in dropouts. John Butcher at Cranky’s Blog takes a look at the Virginia Department of Education’s latest statistics on high school dropout rates. While Richmond with its predominantly African-American student population has the highest dropout rate in the state, 18.0%, the rate for overwhelmingly white Lee County in the heart of Appalachia is 17.9%. As usual, Butcher is unhappy with the way the state calculates its numbers.

Update: Wow, Cranky is on a tear. A new post, “Lies, Damn Lies and Graduation Rates,” shows how school districts can game the statistics on graduation rates to look good.

Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development

W. Taylor Revely IV

W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, posts a shrew op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today. I say “shrewd” because the op-ed takes the form of an open letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which is seeking a site for a second headquarters employing 50,000 people and paying average salaries in the six figures, but it delivers a powerful subliminal message to the older, literate segment of the population that reads newspaper editorials.

The overt message to Bezos, who likely will never see the op-ed, is this: Invest in Virginia because we have “the best assortment of public and private colleges in the country — in fact, on the planet.” The subliminal message can be read in the headline that accompanied the column: “Higher ed makes Va. the best choice for HQ2.” In other words, higher-ed supports economic development. I don’t know if the op-ed was a formal part of the P.R. roll out by GROWTH4VA, which is pushing for higher ed-friendly budgetary and legislative reforms in the 2018 General Assembly session, but it delivers the same bottom-line message.

Reveley’s argument can be broken into two parts. First, Virginia has the best system of higher ed anywhere:

Consider the latest US News & World-Report college rankings. The commonwealth is home to two of the top six public universities nationally (W&M and the University of Virginia), and the only state besides California with two public universities among the top 35 overall. Among the top nine public regional institutions in the South, four are in Virginia. … Virginia’s public universities rank among the nation’s leaders in retention and graduation rates.

Also, Revely argues, the state’s decentralized higher-ed system provides a broader of educational settings than other higher-ed systems, giving students a wider assortment of environments from which to choose and thrive.

The second part of the op-ed focuses on the value of a liberal arts education, which his university, Longwood, provides. Virginia’s colleges are especially strong in the liberal arts, Revely contends, and Amazon needs a steady supply of employees with strong backgrounds in the liberal arts and sciences — not narrowly trained technicians, “but people with imagination, who can think critically, solve problems, work with and understand diverse groups, and effectively communicate.”

“So, Jeff, please consider Virginia,” Revely concludes in his op-ed. But to his broader audience, the message ostensibly addressed to Bezos appears buried in the column: “Virginia’s strong higher education landscape, with broad bipartisan support, is a key reason why in an age of great division, our state’s political culture remains remarkably civil, and the state itself is arguably the best-run in the nation.”

Thus, subtly, while avoiding self-serving and off-putting rhetoric, Revely appeals to Virginians’ better angels of bipartisanship, civility and aspirations for a stronger economy. By inviting readers to make the link themselves between higher-ed and economic development, he shapes the rhetorical battlefield for the higher-ed debate to come.

I will discuss the Virginia-has-the-best-public-system-of-higher-ed meme in the next post, and address the connections between higher-ed and economic development in future blog posts.

Gaming the SOLs: Roanoke Edition

Roanoke School Superintendent Rita Bishop

Virginia allows elementary and middle school students to retake their Standards of Learning exams if they narrowly miss passing or have other extenuating circumstances. In the eyes of Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop, almost every excuse that crossed her desk apparently qualifies as an extenuating circumstance.

Bishop approved all but 19 of 470 requests this year to retest elementary and middle school students, according to documents obtained by the Roanoke Times under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Among the qualifying circumstances: students forgetting their glasses, witnessing or experiencing trauma at home, or having test anxiety ranging from sweating to vomiting. The test re-takes came with additional tutoring. 

“I care about these kids deeply,” Bishop told the Times. “If anybody thinks that what was done was in any war harmful, what we did was we made kids believe in themselves.”

What the Roanoke school district also did was improve the accreditation ratings of its schools. Writes the Times:

Most of the students who retested attended schools whose accreditation appeared at risk. At those schools, once internal reporting showed enough of the retested students had passed, testing stopped.

When the state announced school accreditation ratings this month, Roanoke had earned full accreditation for all but one of its schools and made enough improvement at the remaining school to keep its partial accreditation status.

It’s the district’s highest achievement since the 2012-13 school year. …

Current and former Roanoke district educators said there was so much pressure from central office to retest students that the forms to request a do-over felt like a rote exercise with approval all but certain.

They claim when teachers refused to fill out requests, central office staff did so despite the teachers’ objections. Other times, they said, teachers weren’t consulted or even told their students would be retested.

Bacon’s bottom line: Do I even need to add a bottom line? The story speaks for itself. (Hat tip: John Butcher)

Does School “Accreditation” Mean Anything in Virginia?

Here’s how K-12 accountability works in Virginia. School districts administer Standards of Learning (SOL) tests to measure school children’s mastery of basic skills and concepts. Schools that meet minimum state standards for student achievement — 75% adjusted pass rates for English, 70% for math, science, and history — are deemed to be accredited. Schools that fall short can be designated with a variety of partial accreditation classifications, and they must demonstrate that they are making progress. De-accreditation is a good stick for motivating schools. Although schools don’t lose money, they do lose status, endure the scorn of their communities, and suffer VDOE oversight and meddling.

Just one problem: Schools are motivated to improve their scores, which is not the same thing as improving the academic achievement of their students. The operative word in the paragraph above is “adjusted.” Schools must achieve adjusted pass rates.

Almost no one in the established Virginia media, to my knowledge, has tried to penetrate the logic of VDOE accreditation policies. I could never do it. I am not equipped cognitively or temperamentally to decipher the dense, inscrutable verbiage of VDOE regulations. Outside of the state and the school districts themselves, I know of only one man who has made the effort, and he is a lawyer accustomed to reading impenetrable prose: John Butcher, publisher of Cranky’s Blog.

This graph shows how much “adjusted” SOL scores improve over actual SOL scores. Graphic credit: Cranky’s Blog. 

The numbers for the 2016-17 school year have come out, and Butcher has been digesting them. In the graph at left taken from this post, he compares the actual scores on the 2017 math SOLs to the adjusted scores. In nearly every case, the adjusted scores improve — sometimes significantly so. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), large adjustments tend to kick in around the 70% pass mark — enough to shift a school scoring a 68 or 69 percent pass rate into 70+ territory.

As Butcher notes: “There are 37 schools with 69% math pass rates but only five with that adjusted rate.  The average adjusted rate for those 37 schools is 74%.”

How about that.

In a follow-up post, Butcher hones in on his home town, Richmond, and finds that adjustments pushed eight schools over the 70% mark for math SOLs. The average bump was four percentage points per school. One school, E.S.H. Greene Elementary, received a 26 percentage-point boost.

In yet another post, he drills down to the E.S.H. Greene data. Greene, with a largely Hispanic student body, has appallingly low SOL scores. But thanks to massive adjustments for English as a Second Language students, Greene is classified as accredited.

Concludes Butcher: “This official mendacity gives Greene bragging rights while failing to teach nearly half its students to read or reckon. … More fundamentally: Accreditation — or lack of it — is meaningless.”