SOLs yield steep highs, lows for ACPS

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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

The results from Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests released Aug. 22 were a mixed bag for Alexandria City Public Schools, with increases in English writing and science offset by decreases in English reading, history and social sciences and a sharp decline in math.

ACPS’ performance continues to lag significantly behind commonwealth averages in every subject, despite statewide averages being down from last year in all five subject areas. Most notably, Alexandria trailed state averages in math, with a 61 percent local pass rate compared with 77 percent statewide, and in science, where ACPS’ 69 percent pass rate failed to keep up with an 81 percent state average.

Locally, there was a significant gender gap, with girls outperforming boys in every subject. Performance of students with disabilities was slightly down from last year, and more significantly from two years ago. The biggest increase this year was the English writing performance for Hispanic students, where an 8 percent gain year-over-year buoyed the city’s overall 4 percent gain in that subject area.

Writing and math were the subjects with the most dramatic changes in Alexandria from the 2016-2017 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, with the writing pass rate increasing by 5.9 percent and the math pass rate decreasing by 7.6 percent. Each of the three other subjects changed by less than 3 percent.

New Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said the results, while not ideal, were in line with his expectations.

“I wasn’t shocked by the results, but I would like for us to move forward and I would like for the results to increase and to look better over time,” Hutchings said.

The division-wide 5.9 percent increase in writing was largely due to increasing test scores from ACPS’ Hispanic population, the school’s majority demographic at 36.52 percent, according to ACPS’ 2017 student demographic statistics.

The writing pass rate for Hispanic students went from 53 percent in 2016-2017 to 61 percent in 2017-2018, an 8 percentage point increase. Pass rates for black students didn’t change, and rates for white and Asian students, the other two demographic categories for the SOL, decreased.

ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said she couldn’t speculate as to why specific demographics performed the way they did, but she said that the improvements in writing across the board could be attributed to additional training opportunities for teachers through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a weeklong, hands-on training institute at Columbia University that focuses on curriculum development in reading and writing.

“It’s definitely that course that made a difference,” Lloyd said. “It shows that if you have intentional professional development for your teachers, you can reap those rewards and that professional development is worth investing in for our teachers, because we see the benefits.”

While writing was a high point for ACPS, math was a low point for most grade levels and demographics, dropping by 7.6 percent across the board.

Lloyd said there hadn’t been any recent changes in math curriculum or test preparation that would have impacted the results.

“The math results are just down. There’s no rationale for that,” she said.

Again, the most dramatic percentage change in math by demographic was in the Hispanic population. Pass rates in math for ACPS’s Hispanic students dropped by six points, from 52 percent in 2016-2017 to 46 percent in 2017-2018.

Hutchings said that, in addition to the math scores, test results from students with disabilities were concerning.

Pass rates for students with disabilities were down significantly in the 2017-2018 school year. During the 20152016 school year, 40 percent or more students had passing scores in three subject areas, while this year, only one subject – history and social sciences – had above a 40 percent pass rate.

Math also dipped for students with disabilities, representing a stark decrease from two years ago in the 2015-2016 school year, when 34 percent of student passed. This year, students with disabilities had a 29 percent pass rate, a 5 percentage point decrease.

“Our students with disabilities, that’s a particular area that we definitely are going to need to provide some additional supports for and to find a way, ‘How do we meet the needs of our students who may have special needs?” Hutchings said.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said the results of this year’s SOLs reflected the challenges that Alexandria faces, especially the city’s high rate of economically disadvantaged students.

“We have a higher level of poverty than anyone else in the region,” Wilson said. “We also have one of the highest English language learner rates in the region. Quite honestly, there is not a school system in the area and not too many in the country that have the combination of a 60 percent free and reduced lunch rate and a 30 percent English language learner rate.”

SOL data for the economically disadvantaged and English learner categories reflected ACPS’ changes from last year as whole, with improvements in writing and science and decreases in the pass rates for reading, history and social sciences and math.

The pass rate for English learners in reading changed most dramatically, decreasing by 7 percentage points, from a pass rate of 57 percent to 50 percent.

Beyond high levels of students who fall into the economically disadvantaged and English learner categories, Wilson said another challenge in Alexandria is its transient population.

“We see our student body turning over a number of times every year, and so you might only have kids for a short period of time which means you can make all the investments in the world around wraparound services and supports to ameliorate the impacts of poverty and that won’t make a dime a difference if the kids are only there for a short period of time,” he said.

Wilson said that even though these factors create challenges, they are not excuses.

“From the city’s perspective, it’s on us to support the schools and help them provide the levels of support necessary to ensure all of our kids are successful,” he said. “We’ve made progress but we have a lot more work to do.”

Wilson noted that overall, he did not find this year’s data concerning, as it mirrored the decreases in pass rates across the state. Statewide, pass rates were down this year by one to two percentage points from last year in all five subject areas.

Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, said nothing significant had changed in the SOLs this year regarding testing content or how the tests were administered.

“You’re going to see some year-to-year fluctuations,” Pyle said. “We’d certainly rather see those in the other direction, but if you drill down into the test-by-test data where you’re not just looking at … all the tests bundled together, you see some things going on that are encouraging.”

Pyle said the VDOE was still analyzing the data, but had found marked statewide improvements in specific areas, such as in middle school reading for economically disadvantaged students.

ACPS Director of Communications Helen Lloyd said that while SOL data is valuable, it does not track progress of individual students. She cited the example of a third grade student new to ACPS who started the school year at first grade reading level. By standardized testing in the spring, the student was up to a third grade level, but still wasn’t able to pass the test, meaning the SOL results did not show her progress.

“It is a little unfortunate that these results are fixed and don’t show growth,” she said. “…When we look at the growth of our students, that’s what really you should be measuring – progress on where a students starts and where a student ends in a year, and that is very clear in the accreditation data.”

Accreditation ratings will be released in late September. Last year, 12 schools were fully accredited, with Jefferson-Houston being denied accreditation for the sixth consecutive year and T.C. Williams High School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School and William Ramsay Elementary School receiving partial accreditation.

Hutchings said, ultimately, the SOL scores show that there’s room for improvement. He said one step the division would be taking this year would be involving every school and department in a refined improvement planning process.

“We want our schools to have autonomy and to be able to serve their communities, but we need to have a division-wide resource of what that’s going to look like and that’s where [School Improvement Plans] are one very important step in the right direction,” he said.

Wilson said the changes in ACPS leadership, especially with Hutchings stepping into the role of superintendent, could lend to improvements in the coming years.

Hutchings agreed that consistency would positively impact ACPS students.

“I think we need to be honest about the fact that, over the past few years, we have not have not had consistency and continuity in regards to our leadership, and I think that that does have an impact on our learning experiences for our young people,” Hutchings said. “I think that in order for us to begin to see the trajectory going in the positive direction at a very rapid pace, we’re going to have to have consistency and continuity.”

Check out ACPS’ complete SOL results from the Virginia Department of Education here

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