By Alexa Epitropoulos and Denise Dunbar
Alexandria City Public Schools saw slight declines in the pass rates of all five general subject categories of its Virginia Standards of Learning test scores from the 2015-16 to the 2016-17 school year, according to data released on Aug. 15 by Virginia’s Department of Education.
The declines in the pass rates were consistent across most of ACPS’ 16 schools, with only two schools – Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy and Samuel Tucker Elementary – up in more categories than they were down. The declines were also consistent across most subgroups and demographics.
The declines, albeit small, reflect a two-year downward trend for the city’s public school system. Multi-year drops were present in three SOL subject areas — English writing, history and social sciences and math — while two other categories — English reading and science – remained unchanged. The Math SOL pass rate suffered the largest decline, falling by 4.35 percent since the 2014-15 school year.
ACPS also lags behind peer districts in the commonwealth, with a pass rate that was 11.4 percent lower than the statewide average. In science, the pass rate gap was particularly stark: ACPS tallied 68 points compared to the Virginia average of 82.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin, who started her position in late July, said the declines reflected a number of factors, including Alexandria’s constantly changing student population.
“We are a city that’s very transient,” Berlin said. “This is in no way putting it on students, but if we have students who move in late in the year and they haven’t been with us, they may not have the same results.”
That’s a point that was corroborated by Lyles-Crouch Principal Dr. Patricia Zissios, who pointed out the large numbers of military families, immigrants and families who arrived as a result of the change in administration at the White House. In addition, Zissios said English Learning students comprise 10 percent of her school’s population, with most of those students being Ethiopian immigrants who speak Amharic.
“As a public school, all students are our constituents. We give them whatever is necessary to provide for their needs,” Zissios said. “The children that are coming to us – be it children from other countries with a language deficiency or children with special needs – they’re all tested.”
Lyles-Crouch represented a bright spot for ACPS in SOL test scores for the 2016-17 school
year. The K-5 school which serves 441 students was the highest-performer in the district, achieving a pass rate of 90 percent or better in seven of the nine individual test categories, which measure students by subject. The highlights included a 99 percent pass rate in Virginia Studies, 96 percent pass rate in Grade Four English and 96 percent passing in Grade Four Mathematics.
Zissios credits consistency – she has been at the school since July 2004 – and a number of measures with helping boost scores at her school, including “intervention” teams that teachers run to help students in particular subject areas. Also helpful were partnerships with entities like 4-H and the T.C. Williams High School student-led organization Watershed Warriors, which promotes awareness of the environment to fifth graders in ACPS schools.
“It’s having the same leaders and having a consistent staff in that space. We have relatively little turnover, so our staff is more cohesive,” Zissios said. “… We work very well as a team, we look at what we can all offer to help our kids and it’s an all-hands-on-deck model, so that everyone with time in their schedule tutors or runs intervention groups.”
But though Lyles-Crouch did well this year, Zissios said that won’t result in complacency.
“We were not happy with our results because we saw places we did not perform as well as we did in the past,” Zissios said. “When we got the scores, we were already working on intervention groups and working on plans on how we’ll hit the ground the first day.”
Jefferson-Houston School also stood out from other schools, and though its pass rates went up and down equally for the year, its reading and writing pass rates both increased. Its 8th grade English reading score jumped by 27 points, from 54 to 81 percent, while its 8th grade writing pass rate increased by 24 points, from 40 percent to 64 percent passing.
Francis C. Hammond Middle School and Charles Barrett Elementary, however, experienced near-universal declines in their pass rates. Hammond was down in 10 of 11 categories, with only 24 percent passing 8th grade math — an 18-point drop in the category over the past two school years.
Though it still had some of the highest overall pass percentages in the city, Charles Barrett declined in six of seven subject areas.
Barrett Principal Seth Kennard said he wasn’t satisfied with the results, but said declines didn’t reflect the success he sees on a day-to-day basis.
“I don’t think any of us are overall satisfied when these things come out. It’s not a clear
picture of the work of students, families and teachers. I’m proud of individual gains by students. I’m proud of our overall achievement as a school,” Kennard said. “Focusing on subgroups and mathematics for us, we saw small declines. We saw a lot of students coming to us that were very far behind and they had to be caught up.”
Kennard said, in instances where schools receive a number of students coming from outside the district, it takes time to see them perform at the same level.
“It’s not a two-year window. It’s a longer time for these students,” Kennard said. “A lot of what we’re focused on is getting students ready to be successful in middle school.”
At Alexandria’s lone high school, T.C. Williams, SOL scores were a mixed bag with mostly lower pass rates: scores dropped in seven subjects and rose in four. Math performance was uneven, with a three-point increase in the Algebra I pass rate more than offset by a sixpoint drop in Algebra II and a concerning 12-point drop in the Geometry pass rate.
Berlin said there are “absolutely” ways to increase scores in subjects where T.C. experienced declines. She said, with a new incoming principal in Peter Balas and the creation of new campus academies, she’s optimistic about the coming school year.
“We have new leadership in place there, we have reorganization of its administrative team in order to provide stronger support. We’re looking at instructional coaches who can work with staff to increase their skill base and strategy delivery,” Berlin said. “I have high, high hopes for T.C. with a fresh start this year. Whether you’re looking at individual or course result or what we’re doing with the International Academy, they have just huge opportunity for success this year.”
The declines were reflected across subgroups and demographics, with some student groups experiencing notable shifts. Asian students experienced the sharpest decline in their pass rate, with their English reading score falling by nine points and their English writing score dropping by seven.
Female students, though ahead of male peers in all five testing categories, suffered declines in four of the five general subject areas. White students continued to have the highest pass rates in ACPS, but their numbers fell in four of the five subject areas.
Students with disabilities continued to have the lowest pass rates in the district, with the pass rate for English writing falling by six points to 29 percent passing and math numbers dropping two points to 32 percent passing.
Berlin, who was a special education teacher in her early career, said this was an issue that was particularly close to her.
“It’s an age-old problem. I started as a special education teacher a long time ago and that’s been a challenge all along the way, not having a narrow focus on a particular skill, but teaching skills through the content and through the curriculum that’s just so vitally important,” Berlin said. “If we focus a little more in that area, we’ll see gains with special needs students.”
“There’s no easy answer to this – it’s very individualized. A lot of those needs aren’t tested. They’re things that are affecting the ability to learn,” Kennard said. “We have to address the social and emotional things, as well as the academic and make sure students are supported and loved and ready to learn.”
Zissios said another issue with special education testing is the method itself.
“You’re not going to do as well because you’re already coming in with a deficit,” Zissios said. “And we’re not saying, ‘well, you’re in fifth grade but reading at a third grade level, so we’ll give you the third grade test.’ We’re not actually assessing a student’s growth. If we could do that with our special education children, you would see a tremendous growth.” When it comes to how ACPS stacks up against neighboring districts and the rest of the commonwealth, Berlin said it’s difficult to compare to any other district.
“There are parts of Fairfax that are very similar to Alexandria and parts of Arlington that are very similar. Are we going to be a Fairfax or an Arlington? I think we have our own unique characteristics,” Berlin said. “We need to learn from our colleagues and what they’re doing that works – what we can ‘beg, borrow and steal’ from them, but we are a unique place and I can’t worry about ‘are we going to do as well as Fairfax and Arlington?’ I just worry about ‘how are we doing for us?’” Berlin said Alexandria is diverse – with many students arriving with disadvantages, and others living in poverty or coming from homelessness.
“It’s part of the beauty and part of the challenge of the city,” she said.
When Berlin contemplates the way forward, she said the strategy won’t be dramatically different from what schools have already been doing – looking at growth and decline, as well as looking at what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s a matter of going ‘what are we doing right there? What is working and what is really helping our students to make gains? What are the inhibitors and what’s getting in the way of student success?’” Berlin said. “We can look at overall SOL scores, but that doesn’t give us the information we need about our students. We really want to look at how they are doing against themselves.”
Alexandria City Public School Board Chair Ramee Gentry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Virginia Department of Education is set to release accreditation information for individual schools on Sept. 13.