Our View: SOL results – The good, the bad and the improving

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Data is all in the eye of the beholder.

To wit, a case can be made that the just-released Standards of Learning test results were decent in Alexandria. While scores statewide declined in all five subject areas, in Alexandria gains were made in two subject areas: English writing and in science.

Particularly encouraging is the leap forward Hispanic students made in the area of English writing, where the pass rate jumped from 53 percent to 61 percent in just one year. Gains or losses of a point or two are generally statistically insignificant, but this gain of eight percentage points, which translates into a 15 percent higher score than the prior year, is a major accomplishment.

While the gain in ACPS’ English writing performance came solely from Hispanic students, science scores more broadly increased.

Gains were made by Asian, Hispanic and white students, while scores by black students declined by an insignificant one point.

Conversely, a convincing case can be made that Alexandria’s SOL performance for the 2017-18 school year was bad and is getting worse.

Scores by students with disabilities declined in three of five categories from last year, and levels are significantly worse than they were two years ago. In the 2015-16 school year, students with disabilities passed at a rate of 40 percent or higher in three categories.

This year, they averaged 40 percent passing or higher only in history/social studies. In just one category, English writing, did students with disabilities perform at a higher level than two years ago.

System-wide, math scores are cause for great concern. In our tech-dependent world, a school system where only 61 percent of students perform adequately in math is sending many of its students into the world ill-equipped for success. The ACPS performance in math – which lags behind state levels by a whopping 16 percentage points and is not as dependent on English language proficiency as other subjects – is disturbing.

This underachievement came despite per pupil spending in Alexandria that outpaces that in Virginia as a whole by almost $7,000 per student: ACPS per pupil spending in FY 2018 was $17,193, compared with $10,358 per pupil across the Commonwealth.*

We have to main takeaways from the 2017-18 SOL scores.

First, while these results are disappointing in a vacuum, they are in keeping with general ACPS performance dating back a number of years. The factors contributing to poor performance cited by city and ACPS officials in our front-page story, “SOLs yield steep highs, lows for ACPS,” such as a large number of poor and English-learner students, are legitimate. While they don’t excuse lagging performance, they at least partly explain it.

Second, we think the timing of the arrival of Dr. Gregory Hutchings as ACPS superintendent is good. A new person at the helm can presumably take a holistic look at ACPS processes and priorities, and can hopefully find ways to boost performance. Given the per-pupil spending in Alexandria, we would encourage that review to include ways to more effectively spend the significant taxpayer dollars that fund city schools.

While the news from the SOLs isn’t all good or bad, there is definite, and urgent, need for improvement.

*Alexandria data is from the ACPS website, while Virginia statewide data is from Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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