After butting heads with Patrick County school Superintendent William D. Sroufe, Muriel Waldron, a principal of Stuart Elementary school in the mountain hamlet of Stuart, was removed from her position in 2015. A key source of contention was her administration of programs for treating children with cognitive disabilities.
When children are found eligible for special education, they are exempt from taking the Standards of Learning (SOL) test and placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP). Sroufe’s gripe with Waldron was that she failed to ensure that Stuart Elementary teachers applied the participation criteria properly. Waldron contended that the superintendent wanted her out because her reading of the policy was depressing average SOL scores.
After getting canned, Waldron alleged that Stroufe had libeled her, and sued for damages. Last week a Patrick County jury awarded her $500,000 in damages. Here’s how the Martinsville Bulletin summed up the underlying issues:
Waldron’s lawyer contended that significantly more students at Stuart Elementary have qualified for VAAP since Waldron was reassigned, arguing that Patrick County Schools wanted more students to be placed in VAAP in an effort to get schools’ test scores up on state measures. Sroufe’s lawyer and some school system officials denied that.
However, Karen Wood, formerly Patrick County Schools’ director of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) program, testified that in late March or early April 2015 she overheard an office conversation in which she alleges Patrick County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Cyndi Williams expressed to Special Education Director Ann Fulcher that there were not enough students in VAAP in Patrick schools, especially at Stuart Elementary School. Wood alleged Fulcher then told Williams that she would see what she could do.
Williams denied ever discussing with anyone the possibility of moving students into VAAP as a way of getting schools’ test scores up, and she said no Patrick schools have improved their accreditation statuses by moving students into VAAP.
John Butcher, author of Cranky’s blog, got wind of this story and did a little checking. Regardless of who said what and who was telling the truth, one thing can be verified for certain. After Waldron was removed, Stuart Elementary showed a dramatic improvement in its SOL scores.
Is it possible that school administrators thought some Stuart Elementary students really, truly needed to be classified as having cognitive disabilities? Or were Patrick school administrators gaming the system for the purpose of bolstering SOL pass rates?
That’s hard to say. But between the testimony and the statistics, I share Butcher’s suspicions that Patrick officials were trying to stack the deck. I just can’t say for certain without more data. It would be helpful, for instance, to compare the percentage of children with cognitive disabilities at Stuart Elementary with that of other elementary schools, as well as elementary schools statewide. Was Stuart Elementary an outlier? Was Patrick County an outlier?
Patrick certainly would not be the only school district that has tried to game the SOLs. The bigger question is whether the public education system has any accountability. Will the school board dig deeper? Will the Virginia Department of Education take a closer look? Or will the educational establishment just look away?
Butcher thinks accountability might come from the legal system. Writes he: “The good taxpayers of Patrick County now can look forward to the possibility of … lawsuits by the parents of the kids who might claim their children were misclassified in order to cheat on the SOLs.”
Update: Children with learning disabilities are not “placed in” the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP), as I wrote. Rather, the program is used to assess students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, Charles Pyle with the Virginia Department of Education informs me. Most special education children take the SOL tests, he says, although some may take alternate tests if determined to be appropriate by their IEP teams.