School Board blasts Va. Dept. of Education

Henrico County School Board members blasted the Virginia Department of Education during a work session Aug. 16, calling the state's new Standards of Learning tests in math inappropriate and discouraging and suggesting that they could set the state back by forcing teachers to teach to the test.

Board members made their comments after hearing mostly positive news from school system officials about anticipated state accreditation numbers for Henrico schools.

Ninety-seven percent of the county's public schools (64 schools in total) are expected to earn full state accreditation when final results are released next month, according to preliminary data compiled by the school system.

The results would represent a slight improvement from the 95.5 percent of schools that earned full accreditation last year.

Elementary and middle schools earn accreditation by meeting minimum thresholds of student achievement in the state's Standards of Learning tests. In addition to meeting similar SOL standards, high schools also must meet minimum requirements in the new Graduation and Completion Index (GCI) rating system as well.

But while they were pleased with the anticipated results, School Board members voiced their displeasure with the new math SOL tests.

"Shame on the state Department of Education," Board Chair Diana Winston said, taking issue with the fact that many third-graders in Henrico spent as long as two or three hours taking a test that is supposed to last at most 45 minutes. "What are they testing is what I want to know. They have thrown educators in the state of Virginia back to square one again. I don't know what the state is coming to, because this is not good for children."

Board Vice Chair Beverly Cocke of the Brookland District said that at Moody Middle School, students who spent four hours on the math test were not the exception but the rule. One Hermitage student spent nine hours taking a high school SOL math test, she said.

"The pendulum's just gone too far in the other direction," Cocke said. "This is hurting our children."

Varina District board member John Montgomery said that the new standards would require teachers to spend more time teaching to the test and could impact their ability to mold student learners.

"We're going to rise to the occasion [as a school system]," he said, "but really the question is 'At what cost, and to what benefit?' I don't know how we got to this point, but it sure is discouraging."

Superintendent Patrick Russo told the board that the school system had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the state to receive specific data about the average length of time it took students to complete the math tests and that it was awaiting that information.

Schools are considered accredited if they meet or exceed each of the required benchmarks during the most recent school year or if their average results during the most recent three years do so. Preliminary data shows that 59 percent of the Henrico schools expected to earn accreditation this year will have done so by meeting those benchmarks during the 2011-12 school year. The other 38 percent of schools (25 in total) will earn accreditation based on their three-year averages.

All Henrico high schools are expected to meet the GCI rating, which awards 100 points for each student who graduates in four years, 75 points for each student who earns a GED, 70 points for each student who is still enrolled in school after four years and 25 points for each student who earns a certificate of completion. Schools must earn an average of 85 points per student or higher to meet the standard.

Two schools – Fairfield and Wilder middle schools – are expected to be accredited with warning because of low math SOL scores. It would be the second straight accreditation with warning for Wilder.

School system officials have identified 12 "at-risk" schools on which they will focus extra efforts in the coming year with the goal of improving results. Those schools are Donahoe, Fair Oaks, Johnson, Montrose and Sandston elementaries; Brookland, Elko, Fairfield, Rolfe and Wilder middle schools; and Highland Springs and Varina high schools.

Academic Achievement Teams (AATs) will meet regularly at each school to review student data, create and implement plans and review them to make changes as needed in order to impact student learning in a positive way, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Eric Jones told the Henrico School Board during a work session Aug. 16.


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