Failing Cora Kelly students’ families told of SOL opt-out right

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Failing Cora Kelly students’ families told of SOL opt-out right
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Alexandria City Public Schools officials reported that the families of more than three dozen students at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology may have been improperly informed of their right to opt out of state Standards of Learning tests.

A report from the school district said that in May, Cora Kelly principal Brandon Davis told teachers to contact parents of students expected not to do well on the exams about their right to refuse to take them. Those students were not offered extra help to prepare for the standardized tests.

Under Virginia Senate Bill 427, which passed in this year’s General Assembly session, any parent is allowed to pull their child out of an SOL test, and those withdrawals are not counted in a school’s accreditation statistics with the Virginia Department of Education.

A total of 37 parent refusal letters were sent to Cora Kelly ahead of the spring 2016 SOL test window, of which 26 chose to opt out. Eleven chose to take the tests after all.

In a review of historical SOL data, ACPS found that 21 of 26 students had historically, on average, had scores of 425 and below. Students must score at least 400 to pass. The investigation in May found that staff at the school had been instructed to inform only some families of their right to refuse testing.

The report called that selective informing of parents “highly inappropriate,” but did not say why only parents of struggling students were told of their ability to opt out.

Davis remains principal at Cora Kelly. ACPS spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said he was disciplined but declined to comment further due to personnel confidentiality.

“ACPS regrets that this happened,” said Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley in a statement. “ACPS believes the principal exercised poor judgment and we took the appropriate actions as a result. The incident was investigated and corrective action was taken by the central office as soon as the irregularity came to light, prior to the start of SOL testing.

“During this period of investigation, ACPS actions were transparent, accountable and followed procedures set out by the state at all times. This procedure deviated from ACPS practices and professional expectations related to the SOL testing implementation process.”

When the allegations first surfaced earlier this year, Davis apologized but said in a statement that staff almost immediately looked to rectify any problems caused.

“My actions did not affect the subsequent SOL testing procedures at Cora Kelly,” Davis said at the time. “The testing procedures that were followed were in line with procedures set by the state and ACPS. … The school division personally contacted each of the parents of the students involved and no student went into the testing period without the opportunity to participate in the tests.

“Further, the school divi- sion had additional staff from the office of accountability participating in the monitoring of SOL tests at Cora Kelly during the testing period.”

No parents chose to remove their child from SOL testing in the 2014-2015 school year, when Cora Kelly saw percent- age point increases of between 8 and 12 percent in pass rates in English, math, science and his- tory over the previous year.

The increase in pass rates occurred while 87 percent of the approximately 357 students at Cora Kelly receiving free or reduced lunches and more than half of students spoke English as a second language, leading to Davis receiving several honors.

In March, he was named Virginia Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, while in 2014 he received a Washington Post Distinguished Education Leadership Award.

“I feel happy that it’s another example that poverty does not restrict kids from learning and growing, and I’m hoping that as people see and hear this story, the expectations for kids in poverty and minorities are raised to the level that they can achieve like everybody else,” Davis said in an interview after receiving his VAESP award.

After the revelations and ACPS’ initial investigation, VDOE officials said it will carry out an unannounced audit next spring to verify that school processes are adhering to state and local policies. During the 2016 testing period, staff from the ACPS accountability office monitored processes and procedures through the district’s internal audit process. The report says that such measures may continue in future years if deemed necessary.

In addition, more training will be done for school testing coordinators, administrators and SOL examiners, which the report said, “will further highlight both state and division expectations and specific processes regarding the parent refusal process.”

Davis apologized unreservedly for the incident, and promised nothing similar will happen again.

“I wish to stress that I did not do anything that I perceived was intentionally wrong at the time,” Davis said in a statement. “I did not place my opinion on anybody. I apologize for the impact my actions have had on ACPS.”

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