Alexandria City Public Schools sees big gains in SOL test results

Alexandria City Public Schools sees big gains in SOL test results
(Courtesy photo)

By Chris Teale (File photo)

It is only one way in which student progress is measured, but the data is indisputable:  Alexandria City Public Schools appears headed in the right direction based on the pass rates of the 2014-2015 Standards of Learning tests, released Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Education.

The SOLs show overall improvement across all four core disciplines — English Reading, Math, History and Science — with 14 of 16 schools seeing increased pass rates in Reading and Math. Nine schools saw increases in History pass rates, while 12 had increases in science.

The most encouraging strides were made at Jefferson-Houston School, which is at the end of its first year of a three-year plan to gain state accreditation. Having been set benchmarks for improvement, ACPS officials said Jefferson-Houston has met two years’ worth of goals in just one year, and would appear to be on track to fulfill its timeline.

The school’s pass rate for science nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015, rising by 26 percentage points to 60 percent of students testing proficient. Meanwhile, Jefferson-Houston’s math scores increased by 18 percentage points — to 58 percent passing — and its English Reading scores increased by 12 percentage points to a 57 percent pass rate. The school continues to lag behind on English Writing — a test only given at the middle and high school levels — at just 28 percent proficient.

“Jefferson-Houston specifically I think is a wonderful story of movement,” Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley told reporters at a briefing. “Jefferson-Houston is moving full steam ahead; we’re very optimistic with the continued persistence of the work [being done] to make sure there is a relevant, rigorous and rich program there at Jefferson-Houston.”

“It’s almost unheard of for those kind of gains with the state benchmarks that they put three years out, and sometimes districts don’t even make it in three years,” added school board chairwoman Karen Graf. “What I think is amazing is about not only all the scores but about Jefferson-Houston specifically is that, even with the leadership change at the school and some of the challenges of the last three years that we’ve faced with that school, to see this growth means that whatever instructional practices are being put in place across the district are working for everyone and every student.”

The results are notable for being the first full academic year since Crawley was appointed permanent superintendent, and the first since the reconsolidation of Francis C. Hammond and George Washington middle schools from five separate schools on two campuses to two schools. Crawley’s vision came in for special praise, especially his emphasis on rigor and achievement.

“Last year, as part of my transition into the school division, we started having conversations about excellence and high-performing schools,” Crawley said. “Across the school division and working with our principals and our teacher leaders, we started talking about excellence. What does it look like within a school? What does it look like in a classroom? What do we know from the research are the key ingredients to successful schools? There were a couple of things that jumped out at us.

“One was around the purposeful planning and delivery, so there’s a focus on instruction and our curriculum, we call that the ‘what.’ The second part of that is the ‘how,’ which are the methodologies. The third leg of that tier is what we call the ‘why,’ which is the relevance. How is this relevant to us as a school division, how is it relevant in the lives of our students?”

One area that has seen progress is in the teaching of students for whom English is a second language, something that is of particular importance to ACPS given that students come from 125 countries and speak 87 different languages. Among English language learners, the pass rates across all four areas improved, with English seeing the biggest improvement, jumping from 45 percent last year to 51 percent in 2015.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion on ELL within our school division, and I think there are a number of things,” Crawley said. “One, there is an ELL plan that we’ve been implementing in the school division. Part of that is to look at the structures or collaboration between ELL teachers and general education teachers, and that’s something we continue to look at around purposeful planning, of how do you plan instruction for students who need the support. The second part of that is around the professional learning that we’re doing with our ELL teachers as well as our general education teachers.”

There was also slight improvement in the results among students with disabilities and special educational needs across every subject, with schools officials noting that there would be a focus in the coming months on how to maintain that momentum. Leading the way in special needs education were James K. Polk and Patrick Henry elementary schools, and Crawley added that the sharing of best practices between schools is something he actively pursues.

“When I talk about digging into the data, part of that is looking at places where great things are happening, why are they happening and then how do we share those successes or duplicate those strategies or approaches in another school,” he said. “In special education, we’ve had a lot of discussion in our school division about special education, and we have developed a specific plan to increase the achievement of students with disabilities within the school division, and that plan has specific benchmarks that we’ve established what we want to see, what defines progress for us and some of it is related to the instructional program and looking at the rigor within the instructional program.”

Both Crawley and Graf acknowledged that the SOL results are only one piece of evaluating a school district and that ACPS still faces challenges going forward. But they said that these results show strides already are being made.